Politics

The Midterms Are Not About Jan. 6 (Mostly)

Fears about democracy seem to rank low on voters’ lists of concerns.

An illustration of people protesting outside the Capitol.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Earlier this month, Rep. Liz Cheney closed out the Jan. 6 Committee hearings by saying that voters needed answers about that day “so that we can act now to protect our Republic.” Over the next few weeks, she followed it up with endorsements of Democratic candidates for key statewide election-administration positions.

It’s clear that Cheney and the rest of the committee hoped its work would weigh heavily on the minds of voters. In the past few weeks, it has become similarly clear that this was wishful thinking. Ultimately, despite the continued threat to free and fair elections, this midterm cycle is not about the attempted coup of Jan. 6 and legitimate concerns that it may be replicated successfully next time around.

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The evidence of this comes from poll after poll, which have shown that fears about democracy rank at low on voters’ lists of concerns. In a September Marist poll, the Jan. 6 hearings ranked as the fourth-most important issue with voters, with 9 percent listing it as the top issue behind health care, abortion, and inflation. That was one of the issue’s best recent showings. In October, a Fox News poll had “candidates and their supporters not accepting election results” as the ninth-most important issue. A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll had “January 6th events and investigation” ranked eighth. A Harvard-Harris poll had “Jan. 6” and “voting rights” tied in 15th place.

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“Neither Democrats nor Republicans have electoral incentives to focus on the issue of the threat of election subversion,” Richard L. Hasen, an election expert and Slate contributor, told me. The polling shows that Democrats would seem to have more incentive to focus on economic arguments than the Jan. 6 issue that doesn’t poll as high, while the GOP doesn’t have incentive to draw attention to the unpopular anti-democratic positions of its radical base. “Republicans are beholden to Trump and the majority of the base believes the big lie,” Hasen said. “Democrats must be finding the issue doesn’t poll well compared to pocketbook issues. There’s Trump fatigue.”

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This is reflected in some of the statewide polling as well, with election deniers struggling in the Midwest, but running close in western states. In Nevada, MAGA candidate Jim Marchant has said that he and other Jan. 6-supporting secretaries of state candidates are “going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.” Recent polling has shown him in the lead. In another state that was decisive to the 2020 presidential outcome, Arizona, Jan. 6 attendee Mark Finchem has held leads in recent polling for secretary of state. If either candidate wins, they could mess with the vote count or refuse to certify Democratic wins in 2024. “It’s really scary because of how dangerous this period is, but our electoral incentives minimize the issue,” Hasen said.

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In Arizona, Democrat Adrian Fontes seems to have pulled back ahead of Finchem in the secretary of state race, but election denier Kari Lake is still running ahead of current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs—who won the Democratic nomination because of her supposed strength in standing against 2020 fraud claims—in race for the governor’s office, which is the other key position for certifying elections in the state. Still, Fontes said, in an interview with me, that even if the survival of democracy isn’t being taken as a serious issue nationally, it is being taken seriously in swing states where these battles are playing out. “When you talk about this race, and this state, this is the issue for us,” he told me. There’s some polling to back that up: “Preserving democracy” is the number two issue in the Arizona in one September survey. As the rest of the country tells pollsters they care much less, we all better hope that protecting democracy still matters in the states where it is most imperiled.

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