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Democrats say voters are watching the Jan. 6 hearings, but it's not their top issue

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., holds a piece of glass that he carries with him as members share their recollections on Jan. 6, 2022 — the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Kildee found the piece of glass following the 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Mandel Ngan
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., holds a piece of glass that he carries with him as members share their recollections on Jan. 6, 2022 — the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Kildee found the piece of glass following the 2021 attack on the Capitol.

The Jan. 6 select committee hearings have riveted many in Washington over the summer, but their political impact on key races around the U.S. appears to be limited.

House Democrats on the front lines of fighting off a red wave in November's midterm elections say voters are paying attention to new details about the Capitol attack that have emerged in the hearings — but they say the economy, not the probe into a possible threat to democracy, remains the leading issue.

Most political analysts expect Republicans to win back control of the House of Representatives, as well as possibly the Senate, in the fall. The combination of President Biden's record-low approval ratings with decades-high inflation is politically potent, especially when added to the historical trend that the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress in midterm elections.

Even before the House select committee's public hearings started last month, many Democrats on Capitol Hill were skeptical that they would reveal much new information or break through with undecided voters. But several lawmakers in top-tier races say there has been interest across the political spectrum in the investigation. They just hear far more from voters about the price of gas and other consumer goods.

Republican reaction to hearings could factor in races won on the margins

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., was surprised how many voters — and from which party — are watching the Jan. 6 hearings.

"It's not just Democrats," he said. "A lot of independents and a share of Republicans are learning more about this Republican Party and what it embraces."

What Republicans have said and done about the Capitol siege could affect the outcome of his race in a district that's rated a toss-up, Kildee said.

"I mean, all these races are won and lost on the margins," he said, adding he has seen polling numbers that suggest a large slice of Republicans "are shocked that the current Republican Party seems to be essentially apologizing for the insurrectionists."

Kildee says the economy is still the main issue on voters' minds, but he is also arguing that the GOP has looked the other way when it comes to the Capitol attack. He highlights what he says is the position of the Republican leader who could be the next speaker of the House, instead of talking about former President Donald Trump.

"The fact that they have embraced all of this because they cynically believe that they're better off politically is really frightening," he said. "[House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy has essentially chosen the side of the people who attacked the Capitol."

Another Michigan Democrat, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, recounted how one worker in her district, a machine operator at an auto supplier, was trying to get people to pay attention to the hearings.

"He said that every time he goes into the break room, they're watching like game shows or soap operas — and he always turns it to the January 6th hearing to try and make sure that people realize what a big deal it is," she said.

But Slotkin says the violent attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election result wasn't the main worry for her constituents who drive an average of 40 miles one way to work, adding, "I hear much more about inflation and the price of gas."

President Biden shakes hands with Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., as he arrives at the airport in Lansing, Mich., on Oct. 5, 2021.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
President Biden shakes hands with Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., as he arrives at the airport in Lansing, Mich., on Oct. 5, 2021.

She hopes those outside the Democratic base can be convinced by the findings of the investigation that there needs to be accountability.

"What's important to me is that we reach people who don't know how to think about January 6th, who know it was a violent thing, who don't like that violence, but don't understand what appears to be a significant level of coordination, who are not sure whether this was a really bad day gone wrong or, as I see it, a really fundamental threat to our democracy," she said.

Slotkin also thinks that conservative media covering the hearings more has had an effect, noting that many of her constituents watch Fox News.

"The kinds of things that we're learning have the potential to change people's approach" to the Capitol attack, she said.

Democrats' campaign chief wraps Jan. 6 message with guns and abortion

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who runs the House Democrats' campaign arm, represents a swing New York district.

Even those casually watching the hearings are seeing evidence about how top Republicans worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election, he said.

"That's criminal behavior. And they should be held accountable. And I think that ordinary people get that," Maloney told NPR.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., talks on the phone outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 29, 2021.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., talks on the phone outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 29, 2021.

Wrapping the message about the attack with other issues is already helping Democrats close the gap heading into November, according to Maloney.

"The combination of ignoring gun violence, overturning Roe v. Wade and whitewashing the attack on the Capitol really, really powerfully demonstrates for people that the MAGA Republican Party is dangerous and should not be running the country and should not be running the House of Representatives," he said.

Rep. Dean Phillips, a moderate Democrat who is running for reelection in a solidly blue district near Minneapolis, has heard from voters across the ideological spectrum who are watching the hearings, but he doubts the hearings will be a major factor when it comes to cast votes.

"Will it change a lot of hearts and minds? Probably not," he said.

Committee report and possible Justice Department action close to midterms

Maloney admits that there is some frustration among some in the Democratic base that the Justice Department hasn't announced any action against Trump.

"I think it's going to be very hard for people to understand if there aren't actions by the Justice Department to hold people accountable," Maloney said.

He added, "Those of us who are arguing for the rule of law here respect the independence of the Justice Department. But it's hard to see why it's taken so long."

Slotkin hopes the committee will sew up the conclusions and walk people through the findings of the investigation in "a very concise way."

But the committee's report coming out in the fall, at the same time that the Justice Department releases more details about its sweeping investigation, could put it politically front and center, she said.

"I don't love the timing, but I also can't abide a lack of accountability for a violent insurrection and for potentially trying to, you know, upend one branch of government," she said. "Rule of law is fundamental for how we live in this country together. So I want the rule of law followed, even if it's politically controversial."

Democrats in swing districts are trying to make sure that voters hear them more on inflation by stressing their efforts to bring down higher prices, while also reminding independents about Republican opposition to abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill have largely avoided any mention of the Jan. 6 committee's investigation and have waved off virtually all questions about new developments by saying the probe is one-sided and politically motivated. Incumbents and challengers in the party also remain confident that running on the economy is their ticket to flipping control of the House in November.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.