Did the televised hearings on Jan. 6 insurrection tip some midterm races to Democrats?

Mike Dorning and Ryan Teague Beckwith
Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A House inquiry into the Capitol insurrection helped focus voters’ attention before the midterms on the risk that election deniers posed to democracy, potentially tipping key races away from GOP candidates backed by Donald Trump.

Many factors contributed to Democrats’ unexpectedly strong midterm showing on Nov. 8. But the nine televised House hearings this year averaged 13 million viewers each and dominated news coverage for weeks, highlighting the violence of Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed Congress in a bid to overturn the 2020 election results.

The direct impact of the hearings is difficult to measure, yet exit polls underscored the extraordinary role that rejection of Trump and Republican candidates played in unexpected Democratic strength in the midterms. Democrats maintained control of the U.S. Senate and trimmed the margin of victory for the newly Republican House, giving President Joe Biden’s party the best midterm performance for an incumbent in 20 years.

Hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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Geoff Garin, a pollster for Senate Democrats’ main political action committee, said the party’s post-election research has shown that the sense democracy is under threat “was a very important motivator for voters who supported a Democrat in battleground elections, particularly in races with prominent Republican election deniers.”

The televised hearings “played a significant role in putting the threat to democracy more front and center” and “helped define for voters why they needed to take election denialism as a serious matter,” he said.

Nationally, almost as many voters said they cast their votes to oppose Trump — 28% — as those who said they did so to oppose Biden — 32% — according to Edison Research’s exit poll. And voters who “somewhat” disapproved of Biden’s job performance favored Democrats over Republicans, 49% to 45%.

Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican political strategist who conducted regular focus groups with swing voters in battleground states, said the hearings made Republican election denialism toxic to many independents.

“It contributed to an overall picture of a candidate who was too extreme for these swing voters,” said Longwell, executive director of the Republican Accountability Project.

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The televised hearings “reminded people this was such an awful event,” she said. “It raised the salience, made it more a top-of-mind issue than it otherwise would have been.”

A spokesman for the House committee declined to comment on the role of the hearings in the election.

Across the country, election denial was a losing issue for Republicans in races where the issue was relevant, especially for posts that oversee voting or certify elections. Candidates in six of nine toss-up House races targeted by Democrats with ads tying them to Jan. 6 lost.

Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, widely considered the Democrats’ most vulnerable Senate incumbent, used the issue of election denial to hammer opponent Adam Laxalt in television ads, though she also spent heavily on ads attacking him on abortion. A former Nevada attorney general, Laxalt filed several lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 election, held news conferences and gave TV interviews in which he said there was “no question” that the 2020 election was “rigged.”

Masto eked out a victory by fewer than 10,000 votes, helping to secure Democratic control of the Senate.

Anna Greenberg, a pollster for Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona and 11 other Senate, House and governor candidates, said the hearings altered how many voters perceived the Jan. 6 insurrection, from a spontaneous riot by unruly Trump supporters to a more frightening, planned attack on the transition of power.

“It contributed to a sense of how scary it was to have these people in charge,” she said. “And that contributed to the turnout.”

The hearings and then the controversy over the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence also dominated summer news coverage, preventing Republicans from gaining more traction for their case against Democrats on inflation, she said.

Republican strategist Doug Heye said the Jan. 6 hearings were important for what they revealed, but he said the party’s nomination of Trump-endorsed candidates embracing election denial was more significant.

“I think they were a minor contributor,” he said. “But the major ones were the candidates who were saying the elections were stolen and keeping this issue alive in the midterms.”

The Jan. 6 committee hired veteran TV executive James Goldston, who helped craft an episodic approach, with each hearing focusing on different aspects of the attack and often featuring surprise witnesses or previously unseen footage. Most television networks aired the hearings live.

The sessions were crafted to appeal to Republicans and independents, featuring testimony from Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, members of the Trump campaign and administration, Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and other GOP officials, including memorable testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson.

Norm Eisen, executive chair of States United Action, a bipartisan group pushing for fair elections, said the committee may have swayed the midterms precisely because it took pains not to appear political.

A Republican, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the nationally prominent daughter of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, had a starring role in the hearings, frequently summing up the case against Trump and his allies.

“They let the voters connect the dots,” Eisen said.