It's only been a few months since Democrats narrowly took control of both the White House and Congress, but already the party is looking ahead to the next midterm election cycle with plans to capitalize on the GOP's freshman class of congressional QAnon believers.
"[Republicans] can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.) told Politico this week. "They cannot do both."
Exploiting that perceived schism within the GOP, between the party's factions of conspiracy-mongers and presumably "normal" voters, is the basis for a new series of ads from the DCCC seeking to paint Republicans as a whole as being beholden to the reality-averse QAnon wing. Per Politico, the half-a-million dollar ad buy will run in at least seven Republican-held districts that Democrats hope to flip in the coming election.
The 30-second spots feature footage from last month's attempted coup at the Capitol, interjected with clips of former President Donald Trump and congressional QAnon adherents like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado's Lauren Boebert. The message is simple: Republicans are fully in the thrall of QAnon conspiracies.
"The events of Jan. 6, and the subsequent coddling of QAnon and the refusal to take any responsibility — I think that that has had a profound impact on people's interest in running," DCCC executive director Tim Persico told Politico, noting that he's already seen an increase potential challengers beginning to step forward to run against vulnerable Republicans.
But let's take a step back here, and think about this for a moment. Is trying to tar the entire GOP with the noxious stink of QAnon the best move?
To be clear, yes, the GOP has repeatedly failed to address — and often actively encouraged — the unbridled, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic white nationalism that exists within the endlessly malleable QAnon ecosystem. And yes, that impotence-at-best/willingness-at-worst is a dangerous and disqualifying offense. But are the immediate benefits of elevating QAnon — which, despite its nebulous evolution, still stands as a very specific set of foundational beliefs and not as a general term for racist conspiracy-theorizing — as the overarching ethos of the GOP worth the potential risks?
Here's Maloney to Politico, explaining the thinking behind the new ad push:
If Kevin McCarthy wants to take his party to "crazy town" and follow these dangerous ideas, he shouldn't expect to do well in the next election. And it's important to the country that the Democratic Party continues to be the responsible adult.
Fine. Pedantic, but fine. But now, here's former President Barack Obama's top adviser David Plouffe, who admitted that tying Trump to the Republican Party as a whole was a deliberate move on the Obama team's part in the early 2010s, predicated on the belief that Trump was such an unlikable, unrealistic threat that it could only benefit Democrats to elevate and define him as their antithesis:
There was strategy. Lifting up Trump as the identity of the Republican Party was super helpful to us. [Obama] went out in the briefing room to present his long-form birth certificate, [but] really to continue the dance with Trump. Our view was lifting Trump up at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, you know, as kind of the example of the Obama opposition. There was a strategy behind the material and the amount of time we spent on Trump. Let's really lean into Trump here. That'll be good for us.
We all know how that ultimately went.
And then there's the evidence that suggests that labeling the GOP as the party of QAnon might not really matter to many Republican voters in the first place. Greene, arguably the most high profile QAnon adherent in the world today, was elected by an overwhelming margin in her district even after she was exposed as a QAnon follower. It's not clear that linking Republicans to QAnon would drive the party's enthusiastic base away from candidates, so much as it would simply expose more and more people to a seductive, endlessly affirming alternate reality.
Even Maloney's crude dichotomy of QAnon versus "college educated" voters is predicated on the mistaken belief that the conspiracy theory is animated by ignorance, let alone the not-so-subtle classism inherent in invoking "college educated" as a stand in for "poor." If anything, polling suggests QAnon enjoys higher favorability among people with college degrees than those without. Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser-cum-admitted felon, was a three-star general with multiple advanced degrees before he aligned himself with the QAnon movement.
Republicans, meanwhile, don't appear all that concerned over the DCCC's new push.
"We are going to continue hammering House Democrats for their job-killing, socialist agenda and leave elevating fringe conspiracies to the DCCC," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Michael McAdams told Politico. “If anyone wants to know which strategy is more effective, just look at last cycle's House results," he added. In the 2020 cycle, Republicans surprisingly made significant gains in the House, despite the smothering, conspiracy-tinged influence of Trump and his followers.
This, then, is the dilemma with which Democrats must grapple. Attacking QAnon might be a splashy way to draw attention and condemnation toward a specific candidate, but it carries with it the inherent risk of exposing more people to the very ideology Democrats are trying to denounce. What's more, that ideology has proven shockingly popular among certain voters, throwing into doubt the entire basis for the attack ads in the first place.
Is there a way to attack the racist, unhinged conspiracy-mongering that is quickly becoming a foundational tentpole for the current GOP? Maybe. But I don't have much faith that the persistently message-flubbing Democrats are going to figure it out.