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Democratic strategy to set up GOP election deniers to lose was maligned, but it worked. Should they do it again?

John Gibbs talks to a supporter.
John Gibbs, left, in Michigan was among the Republican candidates who lost Tuesday after advancing to the general election with help from Democratic-funded ads appealing to Trump supporters in the GOP primary.
(Joel Bissell / Grand Rapids Press via Associated Press)
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Winning elections is no easy feat. Candidates and their campaigns raise millions of dollars, knock on tens of thousands of doors, appear at dozens of pancake breakfasts and town halls, and send out oodles of mailers. This election cycle, some Democrats deployed a riskier strategy — helping their Republican opponents.

The scheme was to persuade GOP primary voters to nominate their most extreme candidates, with the hope that swing voters wouldn’t be able to stomach them and would instead vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election. Democrats and their allies promoted far-right candidates in the Maryland, Pennsylvania and Illinois gubernatorial primaries and in congressional primaries in Michigan and California.

If they had miscalculated, they could’ve been complicit in sending extremists to governors’ mansions or to Washington. Even if those they promoted lost, the legitimacy of the election could have been contested, further destabilizing American democracy. Before Tuesday’s election, even some White House aides were complaining privately about the risks their allies had taken.

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But this year, at least, the bet paid off. It appears that in all of the races in which Democrats helped far-right Republicans win primaries, those GOP candidates lost in the general election.

Experts say it’s a risky strategy that provides a platform to far-right conspiracy theorists who threaten American democracy.

July 13, 2022

Still, the plan required elevating opponents who many say are dangerous for democracy. In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, state Atty. Gen. Josh Shapiro’s campaign bought ads on his eventual opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, in an effort to bolster Mastriano’s standing among the GOP base. The ad told voters that the Republican would ban abortion, end voting by mail and had led the fight to audit the 2020 presidential election.

“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” the ad said.

Mastriano was projected to lose to Shapiro by about 14 points Tuesday night. As of Thursday morning, the Republican had not conceded.

In July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promoted John Gibbs, who was trying to oust Michigan’s Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The committee bought an ad that showed Gibbs with Trump and noted that he backed “patriotic education” and would push Trump’s conservative agenda.

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“The Gibbs-Trump agenda is too conservative for West Michigan,” the ad said.

Gibbs won his primary, and this week lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten by about 13 points. The Republican conceded Wednesday.

Meijer thought that the Democratic committee’s actions were out of line.

“Democrats are justifying this political jiujitsu by making the argument that politics is a tough business. I don’t disagree,” he said in an August blog post. “But that toughness is bound by certain moral limits: Those who participated in the attack on the Capitol, for example, clearly fall outside those limits.”

Meijer noted the Democratic Governors Assn., for example, had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in Maryland to promote GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox, who had helped organize buses to the rally that occurred right before the Jan. 6 mob’s march on the Capitol, and had called then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for certifying the election results.

On Tuesday, Cox lost his race to Democratic candidate Wes Moore by about 23 points. The Republican called Moore on Wednesday to concede. The Democratic governors did the same in Illinois with GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, who conceded Wednesday after losing to incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker by about 11 points.

In New Hampshire, Democratic-aligned groups promoted Republican Senate candidate Dan Bolduc and House candidate Robert Burns in their primaries. Both candidates won their primaries but lost Tuesday.

Democrats and their allies did not always succeed in pushing more extreme Republicans through their primaries.

In California’s 22nd District, a super PAC that formed to help maintain Democrats’ House majority bought ads that undermined moderate Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), who had also voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol insurrection. The ads called his GOP rival, Chris Mathys, who had attacked Valadao for that vote, a “true conservative” and “100% pro-Trump and proud.” Valadao won his primary and as of Thursday was leading his Democratic opponent by about 8 points.

The Democrats’ strategy is “high-risk and high-reward,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a Washington-based center-left think tank. And though Democrats were not always successful in persuading GOP primary voters to embrace far-right candidates, when they were, they seem to have won big in the general election.

“I’m not sure there’s a
lot of patience for [election denying] anymore among the electorate,” Kessler said. “Election deniers did not have a good Tuesday.”

Election conspiracists in competitive races lost big on Tuesday, though hundreds were elected in deep-red areas. Trump and his election lies are still very popular with much of the Republican Party. But they are unpopular among the moderate voters who are needed to win competitive districts.

Republicans who backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election lose key races for positions in which they would have overseen elections. But in some areas, they’re poised to win.

Nov. 9, 2022

“This is the big conundrum for Republicans going forward — Trump owns the base. And the base is quite large,” said Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and head of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project.

“That’s why we got a bunch of election deniers and extremists who won their primaries,” she said. “But those candidates are poison in general elections.”

She added: “The crazy gene in the GOP used to be recessive. Now it’s dominant.”

So Longwell believes that some Democrats’ strategy of pushing far-right candidates in the primaries was hypocritical at at time when Democrats around the country were echoing President Biden’s message that democracy was on the ballot and that election deniers threatened the nation’s stability.

“Democrats are playing with fire, and it diminishes their credibility on the issue of democracy when they bolster antidemocratic candidates for political reasons,” she said. “It’s a cynical strategy. I would not repeat it.”

Times staff writer Courtney Subramanian contributed to this report.

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