Three weeks after the January 6 insurrection, a high-profile faction on the left launched an aggressive recruitment campaign looking for candidates to primary a vulnerable incumbent.
The recruitment target? Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, fresh off casting his vote to impeach President Trump.
The recruiting entity? An offshoot of Justice Democrats, the progressive group aligned with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
That’s right: The founders of Justice Democrats went on the offensive against Manchin—immediately after the insurrection—in an attempt to find a more liberal West Virginia Democrat to primary him.
West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the country, making Manchin an electoral miracle; if the group were to be successful in its effort to oust him with a left-wing primary challenger, that challenger would lose to any GOP nominee in the general. Meaning that these progressives watched the January 6 attack on democracy and decided that what America needed was . . . one more Republican senator.
The net result being that this progressive group had effectively joined forces with the GOP to hobble what could have been a movement of empathetic big-tent Democrats incentivizing red-to-blue party switching.
It’s hard to overstate just how significant an opportunity January 6 initially represented for Democrats: Donald Trump’s anti-democratic movement had, in violent and grotesque fashion, paraded its true colors in front of the nation and the world. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Republican party shed 12 points in favorability among its own voters while Democrats made a 7-point gain with independents. A disgraced Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook, his loudest megaphones. Even some of Trump’s most ardent and vocal propagandists from Fox News acknowledged in private that the president had crossed a serious line. Democrats were handed a chance to win over the middle of the country.
Instead, the biggest recruitment story in the aftermath of the insurrection was the far-left trying to recruit candidates to knock off a fellow Democrat.
Whose job was it to recruit on January 7?
An opposition party with a central command structure could have seized the moment to recruit and make lasting inroads with those conservatives and moderates who no longer recognized the GOP as their own. But “the Democrats” is more of a notional term than a real-world, central coordinating entity in the reality of present-day politics.
This truth is bigger than the old Will Rogers joke “I am not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” There are now organized political sub-parties with distinct brands. They even have their own swag — from MAGA hats to Warren Democrats mugs. In the store run by AOC’s Justice Democrats, you can buy gear that says “Time to Clean House and Senate” which is being sold at a moment when Democrats hold majorities in both.
We live in a political era defined by clear, identifiable factions. We just can’t expect “The Democrats” to be one of them—either as a brand or as an organized allocator of strategic resources that can do things like respond to January 6 with an aggressive recruitment campaign.
That work now falls to entities outside of strict party control. This reality can be leveraged to harm the party—as in the case of Justice Democrats primarying Joe Manchin—or to strengthen it.
So whose job was it to recruit those on the center and center-right who recoiled at the assault on the Capitol?
Shrinking Blue Dogs and Reticent Red Dogs
In 2008, 59 Blue Dogs were elected to the U.S. House. In 2021, just 19 members of that centrist Democratic caucus were sworn in days before the insurrection.
Just weeks before January 6, Tim Miller had outlined the new reality of Red Dog Democrats—the sometimes involuntary party-switchers new to the Democrats’ coalition.
In an alternate universe, those five dozen Blue Dogs who came to Washington with Barack Obama would have been recruiting potential Red Dog members of Congress (and their voters) to form a majority that could protect democracy. Instead, the Blue Dogs were themselves an endangered species.
But not all is lost. There are potential leaders with bipartisan credentials who have stepped forward to try to win back districts held by Trump-allied Republicans. These are January 7th Democrats: citizens with appealing backgrounds working across the aisle who have since emerged as strong candidates in winnable Republican-held congressional districts. There’s Will Rollins, a former aide to Governor Schwarzenneger, who credits January 6 with his decision to challenge GOP incumbent Ken Calvert (who supported Trump’s attempts to overturn the election). And Ben Samuels, a former advisor to Republican governor Charlie Baker, who cites the insurrection in his decision to do the same.
It’s not enough. But having a couple dynamic former aides to Republicans running as Democrats to knock out authoritarian-abetting GOP incumbents is a good start.