Like so many around the country, Heather Mizeur felt a painful sweep of emotions on January 6 as she watched the U.S. Capitol come under attack—shock, rage, hurt, grief.
A former Democratic state legislator in Maryland, Mizeur has a special affinity for the Capitol: she and her wife met there during their years as Hill staffers. They named their Eastern Shore farm after the famous fresco that adorns the Capitol’s dome: The Apotheosis of Washington.
Underneath that fresco on Jan. 6, members of a violent mob roamed, looking for lawmakers to capture or execute as they attempted to keep President Trump in power through brute force. “The Capitol is like a second home to us,” Mizeur told The Daily Beast. “Jan. 6 happened and it felt like an invasion of our house.”
That night, as legislators reconvened to certify Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election, tempers flared as Democrats castigated GOP lawmakers for amplifying election-fraud conspiracies. Mizeur woke up to reports the next day that her congressman, Republican Andy Harris, nearly got into a fistfight with Democratic colleagues during an especially tense moment.
With that, one more emotion was added to the mix Mizeur was feeling: a pull to do something about it. On Jan. 7, she fired off a tweet aimed at Harris: “resign immediately, or I’ll consider retiring you myself in 2022.” She insists she didn’t mean to suggest she herself would run; she says she has been in campaign “hibernation” since retiring from the legislature and a failed 2014 bid for the Maryland governorship.
But Mizeur said the response she got was overwhelming. Three days later, she was discussing the possibility of a campaign for Congress with her wife, weighing the pros and cons. By the end of it, Mizeur said, the answer was crystal clear: “My soul was saying, we’re doing this.”
Mizeur was hardly the only person having that conversation at her kitchen table in the dark days after Jan. 6, however. The riot and its aftermath have sparked a prodigious boom of would-be candidates for office, from Congress to state legislatures and city councils, largely consisting of liberals channeling their anger and angst over a near-death experience for American democracy into action to try to help it.
Seasoned political operatives say they’ve never seen anything like it. Amanda Litman, a top fundraising aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, founded the nonprofit group Run For Something in 2017 to give first-time candidates for local office the tools they need to launch a campaign.
In the last two months, said Litman, roughly 11,000 people have registered with Run For Something to express an interest in a campaign for public office. “We saw January 2021 turn into our best candidate recruitment month yet since launching on inauguration day in 2017,” she said. Their registration total for the first two months of 2021 matched their total for the entirety of 2018—a midterm election year that saw a surge in participation nationwide.
“To me, that in the first two months of 2021, more than 10,000 young people said, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to run for office,’ is quite telling,” said Litman. “We did not think there’d be such a surge in interest, we thought it’d stay at the same scale we were at in 2020.”
Litman also said there’s been an uptick in interest in running for election administration positions, like county clerks, given the “big lie” of a stolen election that swirled around Jan. 6. “We ask folks, what’s your story,” said Litman, “and we’ve seen a substantial number point to election administration or democracy writ large as an issue.”
While Run For Something assists the thousands of young people now interested in local positions, on the congressional level, a wave of Democrats have emerged to challenge the GOP lawmakers most associated with Trump’s election conspiracies and Jan. 6.
In Georgia’s deep-red 14th District, three Democratic candidates have already filed to run against Rep. Marjorie Taylore Greene, who rarely misses an opportunity to spread the myth that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that “antifa” and not Trump supporters were responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. In Colorado’s 3rd District eight different Democrats have said they will run against Rep. Lauren Boebert, another election conspiracist, and in North Carolina’s 11th District three Democrats have filed to run against Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who addressed the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol attack.
Some of these challengers ran for office previously, but others were pushed to take on these Republicans because of Jan. 6. Previously, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara had already been mulling a challenge to Cawthorn, the 25-year old conservative who had attracted national scrutiny during his surprising campaign.
But Beach-Ferrara, a minister and member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, told The Daily Beast that Jan. 6 was “the last straw.”
“As reporting started to flesh out, it was evident that Cawthorn had been one of the speakers, something much larger became evident,” she said. “It was not a singular or isolated moment, not about misinterpreting the semantics of his speech at that rally… it made clear he’s not fit to serve.” Cawthorn called the Capitol attack “despicable” but defended his speech at the MAGA rally, where he said the crowd had “some fight in it.”
“That was the final piece of making the decision to get in that race,” Beach-Ferrara added. “My wife and I talked that night and it was clear to both of us that I was going to run, and we were going to do our very best.”
Not everyone challenging a MAGA-aligned endorser of election conspiracies has been a Democrat, however. In Pennsylvania, Brian Allen, a psychologist and self-described conservative, is running against GOP Rep. Scott Perry on the grounds he has become too divisive. “I think Scott Perry has been a very polarizing figure and I don’t think that is in the best interest of our country,” Allen told the website PoliticsPA.
Perry reportedly played an active role in assisting Team Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results. According to The New York Times, Perry informed Trump that Philadelphia lawyer Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Department of Justice’s civil division, was receptive to Trump’s fraud conspiracies. Perry connected Trump and Clark, and a plot developed to use the DOJ to advance “investigations” into alleged voter fraud. The revelation sparked calls for his resignation, including from the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
These high-profile Republicans are now hated household names among liberal donors—creating a windfall for the Democrats running against them. Beach-Ferrara told The Daily Beast that her campaign raised $100,000 in its first 24 hours. Mizeur raised $225,000 in the first two weeks of her bid.
But some of these candidates face long odds. Greene’s district, for instance, is among the most heavily Republican in the country; Cawthorn defeated his Democratic opponent by over 12 points in 2020. Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, won by 27 points in 2020, though it’s likely that an upcoming round of redistricting in the heavily gerrymandered state could shift the landscape.
The candidates express optimism, however. If Jan. 6 reoriented their priorities, they believe the effect will be similar for voters. Public polling indicates that if Trump remains the face of the GOP, connections to the Capitol riot could prove hard to shake: a February Ipsos/Reuters poll found that three in four Americans say Trump is at least partially responsible for the attack, including more than 50 percent of Republicans.
In the absence of more data, candidates are finding hope in the anecdotal evidence.
The riot was the “last straw” for Donald Valdez, a Democratic state representative in Colorado who launched a campaign against Boebert. Valdez said her remarks that day are brought up to him “on a daily basis” by voters. Before and during Jan. 6, Boebert accused Democrats of rigging the election. “Friends on both sides of the aisle are asking me, what’s going on?” said Valdez.
Mizeur said after she launched her campaign, a local Republican businessman and two-time Trump voter reached out to her seeking a conversation, saying he was “appalled” by what happened that day.
“We had a beautiful conversation where we found a lot of consensus,” Mizeur said. “At the end of the call, he pledged that he and his wife would be max-out donors to the campaign.”