Democratic ads boosted extremists in Republican primaries. Was it wise? | 2022 US Midterm Elections


WWhen Peter Meijer voted to impeach Donald Trump, breaking with nearly all of his Republican colleagues in one of his first acts as a newly elected member of Congress, Democrats hailed him as the kind of principled conservative which his party and nation desperately needed.

But this election season, as Meijer fought for his political survival against a Trump-endorsed pollster in a primary contest for a Michigan House seat, Democrats twisted the knife.

It’s part of a risky, and some say downright dangerous, strategy Democrats are using in House, Senate and governor’s races: spending money in Republican primaries to elevate far-right candidates above more mainstream conservatives in the hope that voters will turn away from election-denying radicals in November.

In Michigan, the plan worked, for now. Meijer lost after the official campaign arm of House Democrats spent $425,000 to elevate Meijer’s opponent, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who falsely claimed that Joe Biden’s victory was “simply mathematically impossible“.

It’s impossible to know what impact the Democrats’ announcement had on the race, but it cost more than Gibbs’ campaign raised.

Now, as the primary season nears its conclusion and the political battleground takes shape, Democrats will soon know if the game was successful. While the underdogs have prevailed in Republican primaries across the country without any help from Democrats, critics say the effort at least complicates the case that his priority is safeguarding the future of American democracy.

“It’s immoral and dangerous,” said Richard Hasen, a UCLA law professor and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project. He said the risk of miscalculation was high, especially at a time when the Jan. 6 committee is trying to show how destructive Trump’s stolen election myth has been to American democracy.

“It’s hard for Democrats to take the high road when they’re cynically pushing some of these candidates to try to get an edge in the general election,” he said. “That doesn’t mean what the Democrats are doing is as bad as what the Republicans are doing, but it still makes it reprehensible.”

Meijer’s defeat on Tuesday inflamed an already heated debate within the party about the potential dangers of the tactic, especially as Democrats warn of serious risks posed by those same Republicans. But others argue that it is a necessary and calculated gamble to prevent a dangerous party from gaining power.

“If you let the Republicans get back into power, it will be these La Maga Republicans who will take away your rights, your benefits and your freedom,” said Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. in defense of the strategy in a recent interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “We have to stop it.”

Historically, the president’s party loses ground during midterms. Decade-high inflation and widespread frustration with leaders in Washington have dragged Joe Biden’s approval ratings to historic lowshampering Democrats’ efforts to preserve their razor-thin majorities in Congress.

Ads run by Democrats and their allies are written ostensibly as an attack, highlighting a candidate’s allegiance to Trump or his conservative views on abortion, for example. In Michigan, Democrats charged that Gibbs was “handpicked by Trump to run for Congress” and “too conservative” for the district. But when aired during a competitive primary, the message is meant to appeal to the Republican base.

“Voters in the Republican primary had agency,” said Bill Saxton, chairman of the Kent County Democratic Party. “They had two options.”

Saxton, whose county is located in Michigan’s western district, said now was the time to put aside squabbling over tactics and focus on the real threat: Gibbs’ extremism.

In 2020, Gibbs failed to win Senate confirmation to lead Trump’s Office of Personnel Management, in part because of previous comments he made, including telling Democrats the party of “‘Islam, bending gender, anti-police, ‘it’s racist'”. .

Democratic involvement in the Republican primary extends beyond a single Michigan House race.

In Maryland, the Democratic Governors Association pushed Dan Cox, a far-right figure who assisted rally on Jan. 6 and called Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for not stopping Congress from certifying Biden’s victory as Trump demanded. He won the party’s nomination for governor. And in Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial primary, Democrats spent millions of dollars to succeed to promote the Trump-backed electoral denier. Both states lean Democratic, and the party is reasonably confident its candidate will prevail.

Election denier Doug Mastriano is the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. His Democratic opponent spent heavily to support him in the primary. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The race causing the most angst among Democrats is in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. There, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro’s campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads driving the extreme right Doug Mastriano – far more than the candidate spent on his own campaign. Mastriano, already the front-runner in the race, played a role in Trump’s bogus voter scheme and scheduled buses for the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol attack.

He is now the Republican nominee in a swing state where the governor appoints the director of elections. surveys show a competitive race.

The strategy hasn’t always worked. In California, Republican incumbent Congressman David Valadao narrowly beat a right-wing challenger despite Democratic spending on ads highlighting his vote to impeach Trump.

And in Colorado, one outside group aligned with Democrats spent millions to boost an election denier who marched on Capitol Hill with rioters on Jan. 6 by a relatively moderate Republican, businessman Joe O’Dea, in the race to face Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. O’Dea won, and now the resources Democrats spent making him unpopular with the Republican base could help him appeal to moderate and independent voters.

Interfering in opposition primaries is not a new tactic. In 2012, Claire McCaskill, then a Democratic senator from Missouri, was facing a difficult re-election in a state where Barack Obama was deeply unpopular.

Polling his potential opponents, he devised a plan to upstage what he thought would be the weakest candidate, far-right Congressman Todd Akin. It worked: He won the primary, and she decisively beat him in the general after he derailed her candidacy with a comment about “legitimate rape.”

But a decade later, he urges caution.

“This must be done very carefully,” she he said NPR, adding, “You also have to be careful what you wish for.”

This must be done very carefully. You also have to be careful what you wish for Claire McCaskill

Maloney, the DCCC chairman, said the committee has a “high bar” to deploy the tactic, but insisted there are races where it “makes sense.” Still, it has become a problem for Maloney in his own primary race, where his rival, Alessandra Biaggi, has accused him of playing “Russian roulette with our democracy.”

Some Democrats have also expressed misgivings about punishing the few Republicans willing to stand up to Trump. David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist and political adviser to Barack Obama, said that Democrats’ participation in the Meijer primaries “makes them an instrument of Trump’s revenge.”

In primaries across the country, support for Trump’s big lie has become a litmus test for Republican candidates. And his support, not the hand of Democrats, has proven to be one of the biggest deciding factors in which Republicans choose their standard-bearer, said David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.

In Republican primaries where the group has spent money, he said Democrats had seized the opportunity to expose a potential opponent’s extremism early and preemptively avoid any attempt by their candidate to “pivot” to the mainstream during the general election.

Turner blamed Republican leaders for being “too cowardly to tell their voters the truth” about the 2020 election, a failure he said has effectively ensured the success of election-denying contests. GOP nominations.

In Pennsylvania, one of the main rivals of Mastriano was Lou Barletta, a signing to the state’s bogus voter scheme. And in Colorado, the more moderate candidate won the Republican primary for governor but then selected a denier of the election as a running mate.

“There are no Liz Cheneys running for governor,” he said, referring to the Republican vice chairwoman of the Jan. 6 committee who could lose her primary because of efforts to hold Trump to account. “In terms of gubernatorial candidates, the scary part is that all these Republicans are regurgitating the same Maga talking points.”

There are also Democrats who argue that they are held to a different standard than Republicans. They say Republicans often applaud their leaders for being ruthless, while Democrats are often criticized for not playing politics, especially when the stakes are higher.

As a result of gerrymandering, Republican dominance of the redistricting process and historical trends, Democrats see little opportunity to flip House seats this year. Michigan’s third congressional district is one of them.

Gibbs downplayed the impact of the announcements and projected the confidence he can win in November.

Hillary Scholten, the Democrat who will face him in the Michigan House race and who had no involvement in the DCCC’s decision, said the focus on her party’s tactics was an unwelcome distraction of the issues that most concern voters.

Scholten said, “It’s the Republicans who decided who they wanted in their primary and chose John Gibbs, an extremist who embraces conspiracy theories and is very out of step with West Michigan. I’m focused on making sure that it does not reach Congress”.

His newly redrawn Michigan district is considerably more Democratic-friendly this cycle than it was two years ago. And many Democrats believe Scholten, a former Obama administration Justice Department lawyer who came close to beating Meijer in 2020, would have been a strong contender in a rematch.

While many are confident he can beat Gibbs, those still haunted by Trump’s 2016 victory against the odds fear that in a banner year for Republicans, those deemed ineligible could be swept into power.

“Republican voters will be blamed if any of these candidates are ultimately elected,” Meijer wrote in an online essay published on the eve of the primaries, “but there is no doubt that the Democrats’ fingerprints will be on the gun. We must never forget that.”

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