Less than a month from voting in which GOP control of Congress is dangling precariously, Republicans are linking comments and actions by Democratic politicians, raucous protesters opposing Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination and even a gunman who shot targeted GOP lawmakers. The message to Republican voters: Democrats are employing radical tactics that are only growing worse.
"Only one side was happy to play host to this toxic fringe behavior," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday in the latest GOP attack. "Only one side's leaders are now openly calling for more of it. They haven't seen enough. They want more. And I'm afraid this is only Phase One of the meltdown."
While the demonstrations were intense and some Republicans reported personal threats, liberal protesters' tactics were broadly in line with those used by groups on the left and right during particularly passionate moments in Washington. The confrontational style harkened back to protests by the conservative tea party, which included angry face-offs with lawmakers and a massive Capitol demonstration far larger than last week's rallies.
It's not unusual for Republicans and Democrats alike to sharpen their rhetoric as elections approach in hopes of drawing loyal voters to the polls. But the GOP shift to disparaging descriptions of their opponents as unruly and sinister is a marked change from their messaging before the Kavanaugh battle, when they'd hoped to focus on the strong economy and the mammoth tax cut they pushed through Congress last December.
Both parties have detected a surge in engagement among GOP and conservative voters since the nation's attention was grabbed by the confirmation battle over Kavanaugh, including allegations of sexual misconduct that he denied. While no one knows if that energy will last until Election Day, Democratic voters driven by an animus toward Trump until now were far more motivated.
Top Republicans have acknowledged that television scenes of anti-Kavanaugh protesters berating senators and interrupting Senate debate have helped them. "It's turned our base on fire," McConnell said about the battle, which he's called a political gift. Focusing on the "mob" has also let Republicans raise the subject without explicitly reminding voters about Kavanaugh himself, who polling showed was viewed unfavorably by the public.
So far, Republicans have shown no signs of abandoning that focus. "The Democrats are willing to do anything, to hurt anyone, to get the power they so desperately crave," Trump said at a rally in Minnesota last week. He added, "They want to destroy."
Democrats argue that the party of Trump and the conservative tea party has nerve to decry such behavior. "The last time I looked, the mocker-in-chief is in the White House," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. Trump drew fresh ire last week when he ridiculed Christine Blasey Ford, the first of Kavanaugh's three women accusers.
Democrats say Trump's rhetoric since launching his 2016 campaign has been provocative, pugnacious and at times racist. They cite numerous comments about Mexicans, Muslims, African countries. They also noted his statement that there were "very fine people on both sides" after an anti-Nazi demonstrator was killed by a white supremacist at a violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said Thursday that his response to GOP accusations of Democratic mob tactics "is to say three words: 'Lock her up.'" Crowds at Trump campaign rallies have long chanted that about 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. They've aimed it in recent days at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who some Republicans have accused of leaking Ford's letter claiming sexual assault by Kavanaugh. Feinstein has denied the leak.
Grass roots tea party activists opposed to President Barack Obama's health care bill noisily disrupted lawmakers' town hall meetings across the country in summer 2009, booing and accusing Democrats of lying. One man in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, told a lawmaker that God will "judge you and the rest of your damned cronies on the Hill," while a Boston woman demanded to know, "Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy?"
That September, tens of thousands of tea party demonstrators ringed the Capitol to protest the health care law and what they considered a wasteful, oversized federal government. That crowd, which dwarfed the hundreds or several thousand anti-Kavanaugh demonstrators, vented anger at times, shouting "Liar, liar" and waving sings including one saying, "Bury Obama Care with Kennedy," a reference to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who had recently died.
Black lawmakers said they were targeted by racial epithets and spat upon during a smaller rally by several thousand tea party supporters in March 2010, as Congress was voting on the health care legislation.
In remarks Thursday, McConnell described last week's anti-Kavanaugh protesters as "literally storming the steps of the Capitol and the Supreme Court," confronting Republicans at restaurants and airports and shouting from visitors' galleries during Senate debates. Republicans have said some received death threats and were stalked at their homes.
McConnell criticized Clinton, who said on CNN this week that "civility can start again" after Democrats capture the House or Senate in next month's elections. He also criticized former Attorney General Eric Holder. In a video purportedly shot at a recent campaign event in Georgia, Holder says, "When they go low, we kick them," paraphrasing former first lady Michelle Obama, who famously said during the 2016 campaign, "When they go low, we go high."
McConnell noted that these activities followed last year's shooting of GOP lawmakers at a morning baseball practice by "a politically crazed gunman." Gunman James Hodgkinson, killed at the scene by officers, was infuriated by Trump's election. His social media posts suggest he targeted Republicans because of his political views.
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner and reporters Steve Peoples and Kevin Freking contributed.