Democrats tasked with protecting majorities in the House and Senate are seizing on deep divisions within the Republican Party, hoping that stoking the discord could help them overcome the legacy of losses the party in power usually suffers in midterm elections.
The Democratic strategy is two-fold. The party, led by Biden, looks to get the coronavirus pandemic under control and campaign on policy believed to be broadly popular. And Democrats will also attempt to link vulnerable Republicans to some of the most extreme members in their party, hoping to fan the flames of conflict highlighted by far-right members like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
The first salvo in that strategy was launched on Tuesday when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it would spend $500,000 to air ads tying vulnerable Republicans in places like Dallas, Philadelphia and Omaha, Nebraska, to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
“This has been building for a long time. … It’s like a performance enhancing drug that they got some shady benefits from for a while, but now it’s killing them, but they’re addicted to it,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said of the Republican Party and QAnon on Tuesday. “It is the logical consequence of their reliance on these dark forces and like a drug, they’re hooked on it, they can’t get off it, it’s not going to end well.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee took issue with the ad from their Democratic counterparts, arguing that it was “demonstrably false” to link any of the members targeted by the ad to QAnon. The ads targeted Reps. Mike Garcia and Young Kim in California, Don Bacon in Nebraska and Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania, among others.
“No one knows how to light money on fire better than the DCCC,” NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams said.
Darker conspiracy theories like QAnon have long been a simmering force in the Republican Party, especially amid the rise of former President Donald Trump in 2016. But Republicans who adhere to many of the unhinged beliefs expressed by QAnon believers began to gain tangible political power with Trump at the head of the party, and some were elected to Congress in 2020. Their election has set up dramatic division in the party, with longtime Republican leaders breaking with the party over members like Greene and Boebert, the clearest of which has been Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” are a “cancer” for the party.
The Biden White House, at least publicly, has tried to stay out of the Republican infighting, instead keeping their entire focus on combating the coronavirus. The focus reflects the Democratic beliefs that the state of coronavirus will determine how voters see the standing of the Biden presidency. And White House press secretary Jen Psaki has actively looked to avoid commenting on people like Greene or Boebert when asked about it at the White House press briefing.
‘Democrats know the midterm history’
Still, history in not on Democrats’ side in the 2022 election. The party in power two years after winning the White House has consistently suffered losses in the midterms, including in 2018 when Trump and Republicans lost control of the House and in 2010 when Republicans won control of the House, leading then-President Barack Obama to say his party took a “shellacking” in the election.
The pressure on Democrats is immense, considering the party enjoys only a slim majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate, meaning even the slightest let down in the 2022 midterms could cost the party control of a legislative chamber.
On paper, though, the Senate map looks good for Democrats.
Only 14 of the 34 Senate races will be in seats currently held by Democrats and Republicans have already had a number of high-profile retirements in key races, with the possibility for more in the coming months. Of the 20 seats that Republicans are tasked to defend, two will be in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states that Biden narrowly won in 2020. Pennsylvania will be an open contest, after Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced he would not seek reelection in 2022. And Republican. Sen Ron Johnson in Wisconsin has yet to say whether he will seek a third term.
Four races where Republicans will be on defense will be in traditional battleground states – Florida, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina – while two of the races Democrats will have to defend will be in Georgia and Arizona after the party won two special elections in 2020.
Democrats hope the favorable map, along with a Republican Party in the midst of a civil war, could upend history.
“Democrats know the midterm history, and we also know we can make our own history,” said David Bergstein, the top battleground state spokesman at the Democratic National Committee. “While Republicans are attacking each other, our party is entering the midterms in a stronger position than we’ve been in for a generation, and we’re going to keep doing everything in our power to help Democrats keep winning at every level of the ballot across the country.”
Regarding Greene, Bergstein added, “She shows the GOP is still the party of Trump, and that’s the party that loses elections.”
Democratic optimism does not always translate into significant gains, though. The party was buoyant going into the 2020 election, confident that Trump’s faltering poll numbers and national anger about the raging coronavirus pandemic would sink Republican chances in key races. The election results were far more mixed for the party, however. While Biden defeated Trump, Democrats lost seats in the House and only won back the Senate after winning both runoff elections in Georgia.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that it was Democrats who “have embraced a radical agenda of open borders, higher taxes, job-killing regulations and cancel culture,” something that Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the committee, plans to “spend every day until the 2022 election talking about.”
The Democratic strategy is not unique to the party or to this upcoming cycle. Democrats tried to do the same thing during the rise of the Tea Party after the 2008 election, a plan that worked better in the Senate and less so in the House. Republicans have tried it, too, looking to make specific Democratic members like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emblematic of the entire party.
Echoes of past primaries
Despite strategies like this historically having mixed results – they have been more effective in statewide Senate races and less so in control of the House – Democrats do view the extremes of the GOP as a significant issue for Republicans. And there is some indication, like McConnell’s rebuke of Greene, that Republicans agree.
Doug Heye, a Republican operative and former top spokesman at the Republican National Committee, saw echoes of messy Republican primaries during the Tea Party era in McConnell’s direct statement.
“Mitch McConnell has learned from history where bizarro-world candidates – candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock – cost multiple Senate seats, defined other Republicans and distracted from messaging that would benefit the party,” said Heye. “Clearly, awful rhetoric from some House members threatens to do the same thing for 2022.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hopes the fighting continues and operatives with the committee see evidence that linking candidates to people like Greene and Boebert could be effective, especially because there will be Senate races in Georgia, Greene’s home state and Colorado, Boebert’s home state.
“Republicans just lost two competitive races in Georgia and their majority because they were out of touch on the issues that matter most to hardworking families like beating this pandemic, passing adequate economic relief and protecting our democracy against dangerous lies and QAnon conspiracy theories,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the DSCC. “The NRSC should be worried about losing even more seats in 2022.”
The Democratic strategy to focus on people like Greene does not come without risks. Only certain members can be credibly linked to her extreme views and raising her profile could turn the conspiracy theorist into a more potent force. Greene also announced that she raised $1.6 million in the days after Democrats began to call for her expulsion from the House.
The wild card in this strategy will be Trump, who is said to be eager to be directly involved in the 2022 midterms, especially for candidates who have long been loyal to him.
Trump showed little concern for QAnon conspiracy theorists inside the Republican Party during his presidency, even once noting that they seemed to like him, and he has shown even less care after leaving office, with Greene announcing recently that she had a call with the former President.
All of this is seen as good news for Democrats, given their goal to cast the Republicans as the party of Trump and Greene.
“Anyone who has watched the extortionary events of the last month in American politics knows we are in an unprecedented period of time,” said Maloney, arguing that the combination of the Republican infighting and the drama caused by the coronavirus and dramatic insurrection around the election make the 2022 election more like the post-September 11 terror attack midterms in 2002 which saw the Republican White House grow, not shrink, its majorities. “So, the historical examples, I don’t think fit very well.”