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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Crossover Support for a Weaker Opponent in Primaries a Good Strategy?

From “Struggling Dems look to a risky strategy: Meddling in GOP primaries to boost ‘unelectable’ Republicans” by Andrew Romano at Yahoo News:

Fearing a loss in November, leading Republicans throughout the Keystone State had tried — and failed — to derail Mastriano’s bid. But at least one very prominent Pennsylvanian had been rooting for Mastriano all along, and spending like crazy to help him: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, the man Mastriano will now face on Election Day.

Call it the McCaskill Maneuver.

In the summer of 2012, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a Democrat, did something unprecedented, dropping nearly $2 million worth of ads designed to help an ultraconservative GOP congressman named Todd Akin secure his own party’s Senate nomination.

Why? Because McCaskill and her pollster had calculated that “Akin’s narrative could make him the winner among the people most likely to vote in the Republican primary — and maybe, just maybe, a loser among moderate Missourians,” McCaskill later explained.

Now, a decade later, the McCaskill Maneuver is making a comeback. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada and Oregon, Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been trying to boost Republicans they think they can beat— and weaken whoever they consider their biggest threat.

Next up could be Arizona, where “Democrats are doing something similar with Kari Lake” — the GOP’s Mastriano-like frontrunner — “by focusing their energies in the primary not on speaking to the base, but rather on painting her as too extreme for Arizona,” according to Arizona Republic columnist Elvia Díaz.

But there are serious problems, As Romano explains:

The problem, however, is that 2022 isn’t 2012, and the shift Democrats are trying to capitalize on — an ever more extreme GOP base — is also what makes McCaskill-style meddling much riskier than it was 10 years ago.

In McCaskill’s day, the gambit worked. Akin came from behind to win the GOP nomination. McCaskill celebrated by shotgunning a beer with her daughters. Then she clobbered him by more than 15 percentage points on Election Day.

“We needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad — and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him,” McCaskill wrote in 2015. “[So] we spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign.”

Fast forward to 2022 in the Keystone State.

That helps explain why Shapiro — the Pennsylvania attorney general who ran unopposed in that state’s Democratic primary for governor — has been following the exact same playbook. This spring, Shapiro spent more than $840,000 to air an ad all about Mastriano, a state senator who rose to prominence by falsely denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

The script was pure McCaskill, emphasizing how Mastriano is “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters.”

“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” the narrator intones. “Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?”

Romano, however, cites reasons why the McCaskill strategy could be a turkey in November:.

The first is that a midterm election year (like 2022) is different from a presidential election year (like 2012). In a midterm year, higher-propensity voters — voters who are likely to turn out every cycle, no matter what — have a disproportionate influence, and higher-propensity voters tend to be older, whiter and more Republican. In a presidential year, the scales tip toward lower-propensity voters, who tend to be younger, less white and more Democratic.

So McCaskill had a leg up in 2012 — when President Barack Obama was running for reelection and boosting down-ballot Democrats nationwide — that Shapiro won’t have in 2022.

Much the opposite, in fact. According to political analyst Harry Enten, Republicans enjoyed an average turnout advantage of 3 percentage points in midterms between 1978 and 2014 — an advantage that doubled to 6 points, on average, in the years when a Democrat occupied the White House. Demographics make midterms hard enough for Democrats. Backlash to Biden will only make this year’s midterms harder.

Turnout in last week’s Pennsylvania primary hints at the stubbornness of this pattern. Roughly 1.34 million people voted in the state’s marquee Republican contests for governor and Senate. But only 1.26 million voted in the state’s competitive Democratic Senate primary, with even fewer (1.2 million) bothering to cast a vote for Shapiro (who, again, ran unopposed).

The second reason the McCaskill Maneuver might be riskier now than in 2012 is that it relies on a phenomenon that’s become less and less common over the last decade: swing voting. It used to be that a significant number of Americans would vote for a Democrat in one cycle and a Republican the next time around, or vice versa. Many would even “split their ticket,” voting for a Democrat and a Republican in the same election.

But growing polarization and negative partisanship — the idea that voters are motivated more to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals — have made such practices rarer.

McCaskill’s own career illustrates as much. In 2012, she won 15% of Missouri’s GOP vote and 22% of self-described conservatives, according to exit polls, even as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily carried the state. Six years later, in 2018, she won just 7% of the former and 8% of the latter — and lost reelection in what was otherwise a banner year for Democrats.

So while it’s possible that Mastriano’s far-right positions on hot-button topics like abortion and election integrity will push suburban moderates into Shapiro’s camp, it’s also possible that the same message will energize the GOP’s increasingly MAGA base and solidify the party’s natural turnout advantage. It’s unclear which effect will be bigger.

Mastriano is pretty extreme. But it’s still high stakes poker, considering the damage he could do if he is elected. As Romano notes, “Mastriano has implied that he could award the state’s electoral votes to Trump in 2024 with the “stroke of a pen” — and he just won the GOP primary not in spite of but rather because of that implication.” Of course, it’s also possible that Shapiro’s strategy could work as planned, delivering a victory of pivotal importance for Democrats and their future.

One comment on “Is Crossover Support for a Weaker Opponent in Primaries a Good Strategy?

  1. Martin Lawford on

    Romano makes a sound argument. You cannot compare a Presidential election year under a popular President with a midterm election under an unpopular President. A “McCaskill” strategy in 2022 runs the risk of overplaying a weak hand.


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