WASHINGTON — As Democrats in Congress look ahead to the 2022 midterms, they’re hoping a few images stick in voters’ minds.
Donald Trump directing his supporters to march to the Capitol. His MAGA hat-wearing fans violently brawling with overwhelmed police officers there. And the faces of some Republican House members, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who helped spread conspiracy theories that fired up the mob.
Those are the visuals that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used in its first ads targeting moderate Republican lawmakers. They’re also frequently brought up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who gleefully referred to the Republican minority leader as “Kevin McCarthy (Q-CA)” in a press release, a reference to the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory once embraced by Greene.
But as the Republican Party convulses in the wake of Trump’s loss and signs of extremism among some in its base, President Biden and the White House are taking a very different approach and largely ignoring the tumult, suggesting the party is not unified on whether it believes drawing attention to the GOP’s fringes will pave a path to electoral victory. Neither strategy involves comprehensively countering disinformation pushed by Trump and his allies, a shortcoming that raises its own political risks.
Biden and his staff have a policy of mentioning Trump as little as possible, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly refused to answer questions in the briefing room about Greene because she doesn’t want to “elevate” conspiracy theories. The name “Trump” has taken on the same verboten quality of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, with Biden reaching for creative alternatives to avoid even saying the former president’s name.
“The president spoke about this on the campaign trail, but his focus at this point is not looking backward at the ‘former guy,’ as he has called him in the past,” Psaki said on Thursday when asked about Trump’s tax returns.
Of course, Biden and House Democrats face different political realities. The president has a few years to build a record to run on, with conquering COVID-19 and reviving the economy crucial milestones he must achieve in order to win election. Talking about Trump, QAnon, or Republicans who continue to spread the lie that Trump actually won the election just distracts from the picture that Biden wants to project of a hard-at-work president focused on the pandemic.
“The communications team knows that the moment President Biden starts bringing up Donald Trump or Marjorie Taylor Greene or whatever, then that’s going to be the story,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who worked on Biden’s campaign and inauguration. “This White House considers them to be largely non-factors.”
House Democrats, on the other hand, have to face voters in less than two years and want to define their Republican opponents as extremists early on — much in the same way Republicans attempted to paint all Democrats as “socialists” during the 2020 election with ads heavily featuring Democrats’ most lefty members.
“This is politics 101: Divide your opposition and rally your base,” said Alex Conant, a Republican political strategist. “QAnon and Jan. 6 are very divisive within the Republican Party. Nobody wants to talk about Jan. 6.”
But it’s unclear if featuring photos of Greene in Democratic ads would pack the same punch as the 2020 Republican ads featuring Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, both women of color whom Trump attacked in racist terms. Those ads likely activated racial resentments and fears in some voters, even if they did not know who the women were. Greene, a first-term member from Georgia, is also less well known than Ocasio-Cortez at this point.
“It doesn’t work because no one making a decision about their member of Congress cares about who’s representing the 14th district of Georgia,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for former House speaker John Boehner.
A Democratic strategist who makes ads for members in competitive districts but did not want to be named speaking ill of the DCCC said he believed playing up the extremism and fringes of the Republican Party is only effective if Democrats can explain why that might affect voters personally.
“I think it’s missing a connection to people’s everyday lives,” the strategist said. “It’s one thing to say Marjorie Taylor Greene is crazy, but we have to make a leap to why you as a voter are harmed by that.”
The real political benefit to House Democrats of the GOP’s continuing fealty to Trump even after the insurrection may materialize without them having to do anything at all. If Trump supports primary challenges to Republican incumbents who crossed him, as he’s promised, that could destabilize races Republicans would otherwise be expected to win without drama.
“To what degree do Republicans really damage themselves with inner party primary battles and fights?” asked Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. “I do think that will be a bigger factor than whether House Democrats try to weaponize the craziness of the Republican Party.”
Historically, midterms tend to be unkind to the party controlling the White House, which creates a theoretical advantage for Republicans in 2022.
But while House Democrats mock Republicans for their more extreme members and beliefs, and Biden ignores the issue entirely, some activists worry that no one in the Democratic Party appears dedicated to pushing back on the conspiracies Trump and others pushed, which have shown surprising staying power.
Most Americans believe the 2020 election was fair, but millions of them — including a majority of Republicans — say they believe there was widespread fraud. GOP politicians are using that belief among their base to build support for state laws limiting voting rights, showing that letting these lies take root has real political consequences for Democrats.
Social media companies cracked down on QAnon, the online conspiracy community that perpetuated the lie that Trump really won the election, as well as Trump himself following the insurrection. But the false beliefs spread by them still permeate the electorate.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal grass-roots group, said she believes Democrats sometimes do not grasp how some voters are being bathed in disinformation or misleading messaging online, with little or no pushback penetrating their bubbles.
“We will need to have these conversations,” she said. “President Biden will need to get much more comfortable with the idea that he’s gotta be a reachable communicator to all aspects of the public.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Michael Steel’s last name.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.