GOP senators downplay Jan. 6 panel’s importance

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(The Hill) — Senate Republicans are downplaying the impact of the House Jan. 6 hearings, which have shed new light on former President Donald Trump’s actions to incite a crowd to storm the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

Senate Republicans generally feel confident the damaging revelations won’t have much impact on the midterm elections, citing economic factors such as inflation as far more significant in moving voters.

But Republican senators are less sure what testimony before the committee, which has received heavy media coverage, means for Trump’s viability as a 2024 presidential candidate.

There are signs that Trump’s popularity among Republican voters is dipping, but GOP lawmakers are reluctant to dismiss his chances of winning in 2024 given how he defied predictions in 2016.

“To the degree that there are any people who haven’t made up their minds or don’t have an opinion one way or the other, maybe something comes out of this that changes that,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said when asked what impact he thought the Jan. 6 hearings might have on voters. “But it just seems like right now it’s mostly rehashing ground.”

“There are so many hypotheticals around this right now. Who knows if he runs again,” he added.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who along with Thune urged his Senate GOP colleagues not to support objections to the Electoral College’s tally, told reporters last week that he’s not focused on the House hearings.

“I’m focusing on what we’re doing in the Senate, and I think the most important thing we’re doing at the moment is the veterans bill and the issue [going] forward on these violent crimes we’ve witnessed,” he said, referring to negotiations on a gun safety bill.

Yet, McConnell also said in December that finding out more about what triggered the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol would be important.

“I think that fact-finding is interesting. We’re all going to be watching it,” he said six months ago. “It was a horrendous event, and I think what they’re seeking to find out is something the public needs to know.”

Many Senate Republicans are skeptical the hearings will dent Trump’s popularity with the base, which is a big reason why they’re steering clear of commenting on what Trump knew and did before and during the attack.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), an adviser to McConnell’s leadership team, said she’s followed some of the hearings but “didn’t learn anything too new.”

“Yes, they’re significant, but I’m not sure it’s going to change anyone’s mind,” she said.

Asked about what it means for Trump if he runs for president in 2024, Capito said, “Let me get past 2022.”

Recent polls show that Trump’s support among Republican voters is slipping, though he remains a formidable political power.

An NBC News poll last month found that Republican voters are starting to see their party as more important than Trump himself. The survey conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies found that 58 percent of Republicans described themselves as bigger supporters of the GOP than Trump, compared to 38 percent right before the 2020 election.

Political experts say Republican lawmakers shouldn’t ignore the impact of the hearings on swing voters.

“The hearings are not likely to move the needle among Republicans, but GOP senators should worry about independent voters. Those people often are swayed by new information, and there’s been very graphic testimony here and that group of voters could shift enough to make a difference in upcoming elections,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Trump has taken a hit in the country at large, and even among Republicans his numbers have dropped a little bit,” West said.

“It may not be enough to deny him the nomination if it’s a crowded field, but if he ends up in a one-on-one primary battle, his declining fortunes could be problematic,” he added.

Democrats believe Trump’s effort to undermine the results of the 2020 election will be an issue in the midterms and 2024, especially if he is on the ballot.

“I think that people looking at this really see it as an ongoing criminal conspiracy. Not just Jan. 6, but we’re certainly seeing it in Michigan that they’re trying to replace poll workers and do things to really create chaos in voting so people won’t have any confidence in voting,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

But Republicans say the testimony doesn’t appear to be breaking through with voters at home.

“No one’s ever said anything to me about it back home,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “I don’t know that I know anybody that’s watched it. No one has ever brought it up as an issue.”

Cramer said he couldn’t speculate what the hearings mean for Trump’s political future because “to be honest it’s not a very high priority in my life or anybody in my universe’s life.”

“Most people see it as a made-for-TV production based on something that’s not really a very high priority considering what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I haven’t really looked at any news reports about it.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he watched the first day of hearings and parts of the second day.

“I think they did a very nice production. They spent their time efficiently,” he said, but added they “didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial for inciting the insurrection, said Republicans who didn’t back setting up the panel “are basically saying this is a rehash of everything out there.”

“I’m sure there are many that haven’t paid any attention to it whatsoever, and then there are those who were just absolutely and perhaps traumatized by the events of Jan. 6 and so they were glued to it in the aftermath of that and through the impeachment proceedings,” she said.

Murkowski said different senators were trying to get in touch with senior Trump administration officials to stop the violence of Jan. 6 and that it’s interesting to learn more details of the events surrounding that day. But she doesn’t know if it makes much difference to Trump’s political future.

She said she would have thought immediately after Jan. 6 that Trump’s influence in the Republican Party would be severely diminished, but “a year later he clearly has a level of political influence that hasn’t waned in many areas.”

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