A dry run. A dress rehearsal. A practice coup. As the first anniversary of the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol approaches, there is no shortage of warnings about the danger of a repeat by Republicans.
But even as Donald Trump loyalists lay siege to democracy with voting restrictions and attempts to take over the running of elections, there are fears that Democrats in Washington have not fully woken up to the threat.
“At the state level we’re raising hell about it but the Democrats on the national level are talking about Build Back Better, the infrastructure bill, lots of other things,” said Tony Evers, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin. “When we think about voting rights and democracy, I would hope we would hear a little bit more about that from the national level.”
Hopes that the attack on the Capitol would break the fever of Trumpism in the Republican party were soon dashed. All but a handful of its members in Congress voted against a 9/11-style commission to investigate the riot and many at national level have downplayed it, rallying to the former president’s defense.
But it is an attritional battle playing out state by state, county by county and precinct by precinct that could pose the bigger menace to the next election in 2024, a potential rematch between Trump and Joe Biden.
An avalanche of voter suppression laws is being pushed through in Republican-led states, from Arizona to Florida to Georgia to New Hampshire. Gerrymandered maps are being drawn up to form districts where demographics favour Republican candidates.
Backers of Trump’s big lie of a stolen election are running to be the secretary of state in many places, a position from which they would serve as the chief election official in their state. Trump has endorsed such candidates in Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada – all crucial swing states.
The all-out assault suggests that Trump and his allies learned lessons from their failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, identifying weak points in the system and laying the groundwork for a different outcome next time.
Dean Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, said: “It looks like Plan B is populating state elected offices with believers of the big lie and morally corrupt candidates. We should all be concerned about that and, by the way, not just Democrats: everybody.”
Yet despite waves of media coverage – recently including the Atlantic magazine and the Guardian and New York Times newspapers – Democrats face the challenge of getting their voters to care. Many are confronting inflation, crime and other priorities and may assume that, having defeated Trump last year, they can stop paying attention.
Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, said: “It’s still very difficult to imagine the severity and depth of what Donald Trump tried to pull off. It’s hard sometimes to recognise something when it’s new. For the president of the United States to try and stage a coup is unprecedented. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around it.”
Inslee described Trump as “a clear and present danger” who is “trying to remove the impediments that rescued democracy last time”. State governors are not the only ones sounding the alarm about the dangers of complacency or assuming that normal service has resumed.
Jena Griswold, a Colorado Democrat seeking re-election, is chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which focuses on electing Democrats to those positions. She said while there’s been a surge of attention from activists and donors to those races, “it is not enough.”
“I think one of the issues happening is that because this is the United States, the idea that our most fundamental freedom of living in a democracy is under attack, is hard to really grasp,” she said. “It’s important that we keep leaning in because the folks on the other side are definitely leaning in.”
In Michigan, one of the leading candidates in the Republican field is Kristina Karamo, who has spread lies about 6 January and the election. She is seeking to oust Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who became one of the most high profile secretaries of state in 2020 when she took steps to make it easier to vote by mail in her state.
Like Griswold, Benson, who describes herself as “avowedly not a partisan”, said she noticed increased interest from voters and independent donors, but not from the national Democratic party.
“We’re not seeing the same sense of urgency that perhaps ‘the other side’ has shown in investing in these offices,” she said. “With the exception of the vice-president, who’s been enormously supportive and gets the importance of these offices from a voting rights standpoint, I have seen no significant increase in support from national party leaders than what we experienced in 2018, which wasn’t insignificant.”
Acolytes of the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement are drilling down even deeper, targeting local election oversight positions that have traditionally been nonpartisan and little noticed, with only a few hundred votes at stake and candidates often running unopposed. Yet these too could pull at the threads of the democratic fabric.
In Pennsylvania, for example, there is concern that election deniers are running for a position called judge of elections, a little-known office that plays a huge role in determining how things are run on election day.
Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director of All Voting is Local, a voting advocacy group, said the role is essentially the top position at the precinct polling place on election day. They could cause huge disruptions at the polls based on how the office holder interprets rules around ID and spoiling mail-in ballots, he added.
Seeborg agreed that not enough attention has been paid to these local races. “There’s no precedent for this, as far as we know in sort of the modern history of elections,” he said. “I don’t think folks anticipated this, I’m not sure how seriously entities like the Democratic party are taking this, but they ought to.”
Similar anxieties emerged earlier this week when the grassroots movement Indivisible ran a focus group with members from Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and elsewhere.
Ezra Levin, the group’s co-founder and co-executive director, said: “They’re worried about their governors, they’re worried about their secretaries of state and they’re worried even at a more local level about previously nonpartisan or uncontroversial election administration officials being taken over by a well-funded and very focused operation led by people who have embraced the big lie.
“These are not positions, especially at the local level, that are getting as much attention but it’s real. We see Steve Bannon [former White House chief of staff, now a rightwing podcaster] trying to lead the charge, getting folks to take up the lowest level spots in the election administration ecosystem. It’s happening right in front of our eyes.”
Levin, a former congressional staffer, noted that the Democratic party is not a monolith but warned that Biden has devoted his political capital – traveling the country to make speeches, holding meetings on Capitol Hill – to causes such as infrastructure rather than the future of democracy.
“The big missing puzzle piece in this entire fight for the last 11 months has been the president.”
Pressure on the Senate to act intensified this week when 17 governors wrote a joint letter expressing concern over threats to the nation’s democracy. Evers of Wisconsin was among them.
In a phone interview, he said Democrats in his crucial battleground state are highlighting the “full throated attack on voting rights” but acknowledged that voters have numerous other concerns.
“Everybody’s talking about it but when they go home from the capital and they’re visiting with people, I’m guessing that the conversation talks about more bread and butter things like ‘I want my roads fixed,’ and ‘Thank you for reducing taxes,” Evers added.