A string of Republican candidates who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and marched to the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, are winning or could win primaries in competitive congressional districts, offering what could be the clearest test yet of whether general election voters still care about the fallout from the insurrection inspired by former President Donald Trump.
In Ohio, J.R. Majewski, a candidate who has shared material from the false QAnon conspiracy theory and was a January 6 rally participant, unexpectedly won a primary to face vulnerable Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in a newly drawn Republican-leaning district. Majewski has denied being a QAnon follower.
In North Carolina, Sandy Smith, who tweeted on January 6 that she had just “marched from the Monument to the Capitol,” won a primary for an open seat that leans Democratic but is winnable for Republicans in a good year – which 2022 is shaping up to be.
And across the country, other Republican candidates with alleged ties to the events in Washington, DC , on January 6 – from Annie Black in Nevada to Jason Riddle in New Hampshire to Derrick Van Orden in Wisconsin – are on the ballot for competitive seats.
Not all candidates who were in DC on January 6 to protest the 2020 election have won, but the results from Ohio and North Carolina make clear that the association with January 6 isn’t a disqualifying factor with many Republican primary voters.
Whether general election voters in November will care about those ties 18 months removed from January 6, 2021, is an open question as the House select committee holds public hearings on the January 6 attack.
Difficult year for Democrats
Democrats are buoyant about these Republicans winning primaries, believing that the ability to use the events of January 6 in ads and messaging will help in what could be a difficult midterm year for their party amid President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and concerns about the economy, inflation and surging gas prices.
“On January 6th, Congresswoman (Marcy) Kaptur arrived at the Capitol to fulfill the duties she had sworn an oath to uphold,” said Kaptur campaign spokesman Kyle Buda. “J.R. Majewski not only participated that day – he raised $20,000 for others to join.”
Majewski has said on camera that he raised between $20,000 to $25,000 to bring people to Washington around the “Stop the Steal” rally but says they “went there to support the President peacefully.”
CNN reached out to Majewski for this story. The candidate has said he was “heartbroken” by what happened at the Capitol on January 6, noting that “when the violence started, we all left.”
“I wish it wouldn’t have happened,” Majewski has said about the violence on January 6.
Black, a Republican assemblywoman in Nevada who is running for the state’s 4th District, was in Washington on January 6 and told local media afterward that she was on the East side of the Capitol because she had “heard (Trump) was also going to do a second speech at the Capitol.” She said once people broke through the barricades, she “moved away and back toward the Supreme Court” and watched from a distance.
Riddle, a Navy veteran who is running for New Hampshire’s 2nd District, has pleaded guilty to theft of government property and illegally protesting inside the Capitol. He was sentenced in April to serve 90 days in jail. Riddle has tied his actions on January 6 to his run for office, telling NBC10 Boston that his time in the Capitol tells people that “I show up. I’m going to actually keep my promises and make some changes.”
CNN reached out to the Black, Riddle and Smith campaigns for this story.
And while some Republicans acknowledge that these candidates could make winnable races slightly more difficult, they are skeptical that voters will make January 6 central to their decision-making process.
“Democrats have been desperate to talk about anything other than everything that has Biden’s numbers constantly falling and this gives them an opportunity to do that,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “When people are having sticker shock every day of their lives … it is going to be hard to convince voters that anything else rises above that, regardless of what they think about January 6.”
Polling shows that the way Republicans view January 6 has shifted over time.
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS in January and February found that a majority of US adults believed the January 6 attack represented either a crisis (28%) or a major problem (37%) for American democracy.
But the polling also found that Republican views on January 6 have shifted dramatically since the immediate aftermath. According to the poll, while 15% of Republicans said in January 2021 that the attack on the Capitol was not a problem, the figure had risen to 27% in early 2022. And while 38% of Republicans in 2021 said enough had been done to penalize rioters, 71% felt that way a year later.
This is consistent with other polls, like a CBS News/YouGov poll from May, which found that 69% of Democrats called the January 6 issue “very important,” compared with just 21% of Republicans.
Republican strategists – some with ties to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans – told CNN there are worries that these candidates will not only make the committee’s job more difficult but also put what should be clear GOP wins at risk.
Some compared it to the problem Senate Republicans had in 2010 and 2012, when candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana won Republican primaries on the back of tea party fervor only to lose in the general election and hurt their party’s chances of winning the Senate.
But none of the strategists wanted to discuss the internal deliberations for fear of running afoul of the NRCC.
A spokesman for the NRCC did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story, but the committee has stood by some of the candidates who were in DC for on January 6, including Majewski after he won his primary.
“We’re committed to doing whatever is necessary to rid Ohioans of career politician Marcy Kaptur,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the NRCC.
A reason to run
For some Democrats, the prospect of candidates who were in DC on January 6 heading to Congress next year is not only worrying, it was a key reason they decided to run.
“It was pivotal. That was the No. 1 reason I am running,” Deb McGrath told CNN. McGrath is a former Army captain and retired CIA officer who is running for the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin’s open 3rd District. The lone Republican in the race is Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL who a Daily Beast report from last year said was inside the restricted area at the Capitol on January 6.
Van Orden has disputed the idea that he attended the insurrection, telling a reporter from the La Crosse Tribune that the Daily Beast report was “inaccurate” but offering no further details. Van Orden also posted on Facebook last year that he “did not step foot on the Capitol grounds let alone into the Capitol building because, I don’t break the law.”
“So let’s stop pretending like you are trying to do anything other than using the injury and deaths of American citizens in an effort to influence a federal election,” added Van Orden. A spokesperson for the candidate did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“Derrick Van Orden was a retired Navy SEAL who took the same oath to protect and defend the Constitution that I had. To me, that is a lifelong moral obligation,” McGrath said, calling his attendance a “an inflection point” in the race.
Brad Pfaff, a Wisconsin state senator who is also running to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Ron Kind in the 3rd District, said that “the least patriotic thing someone can do is march on our nation’s Capitol and participate in something that took place on January 6th” and that people in rural Wisconsin “recognize that this individual is not one of us.”
Still, for Democrats facing political headwinds this year, the January 6 ties represent an opening to holding on to competitive districts.
“Kevin McCarthy and the NRCC have rolled out the red carpet for actual insurrectionists to run for Congress by embracing conspiracy theories and MAGA extremism,” said Helen Kalla, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “By supporting these candidates, House Republicans are saying insurrection is a mainstream position in their caucus.”
CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.