I am not generally a fan of too-clever-by-half, much less deceptive, political tactics, so having seen one gain ground, I offered a warning at New York.
What was once a rare and controversial tactic — meddling in the other party’s primaries to boost extremist candidates that seem most beatable in a general election — is in 2022 becoming almost routine, particularly for Democrats. It happened in Pennsylvania, where prior to the May primary Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro spent more money on ads about ultra-MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano than Mastriano spent on ads about himself. The ads called him “too conservative for Pennsylvania,” which was cleverly intended to convince conservative Republican primary voters that he was just right for them. The gambit likely helped Trump’s endorsee win the GOP nomination.
In the June 7 California primary, Democrats pulled the same sort of stunts in order to help two right-wing rivals to Republican incumbent congressmen David Valadao and Young Kim. One, from Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC, just blatantly promoted Valadao opponent Chris Mathys. Another, from Democratic candidate Asif Mahmood, raised the visibility of Kim opponent Greg Raths. The idea in both cases was to knock the incumbents out of the general election via a third-place finish in the nonpartisan top-two primary. Kim moved on to November anyway, and Valadao is leading Mathys with a lot of votes still out.
The help-the-kooks strategy is also in full swing in Colorado. In the June 28 GOP primary to select an opponent for potentially vulnerable Democratic senator Michael Bennet, the big ad spender is a group called Democratic Colorado, which is telling voters that election-conspiracy champion Ron Hanks is “too conservative for Colorado,” carefully laying out his issue positions in a way that lines up with Republican rank-and-file sentiment. Similarly, in the primary aimed at choosing a nominee to face Democratic governor Jared Polis, Democrats are spending serious dough to help another ultra-MAGA Republican, Greg Lopez, as Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor explains:
“The Colorado Information Network, funded partly by the Democratic Governors Association, has spent or reserved more than $1.5 million on broadcast and cable. One recent ad from the liberal group points out Lopez’s support for Trump and his election lies, opposition to gay marriage and abortion. ‘Greg Lopez is too conservative for Colorado,’ the ad ends — a clear effort to appeal to base conservative voters, which both parties have done before in primaries to boost a weaker potential nominee.”
Republicans cannot really duplicate this strategy at present, in part because there are fewer ideologically polarized Democratic primaries this year, and in part because Democratic voters won’t necessarily rise to the bait. Precisely because the Democratic rank and file are not extremist, attacking a weak Democrat as “too socialist” for this or that jurisdiction won’t necessarily lift them to victory; it might have the opposite effect.
But Democrats trying to nominate Republican extremists really need to ask themselves if they’re helping elect extremists in ways that may be enduringly bad for the country. For one thing, calculations about the electability of this or that opposite-party candidate could turn out to be fatally wrong. In 2016, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti explained, Hillary Clinton’s campaign did everything it could to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy early on, when he mostly looked like an irritant to the more electable Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Team Clinton couldn’t really fix on a strategy for beating Trump until it was too late. You have to wonder if Democrats looking at polls showing Doug Mastriano running ahead of Senate nominee Mehmet Oz on the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania are having some second thoughts about helping Mastriano win his primary.
Aside from the possibility that 2022 could be a good year for crypto-fascism, there’s another big moral hazard in any Democratic strategy to lift Republican extremists onto the general election ballot: This could be a big-wave election in which anyone bearing the elephant label in a remotely competitive contest will win, kookiness be damned. In that event the net result of Democratic tampering in Republican primaries would be a kookier group of people running America.
Wave elections can be like a large net thrown into the sea, collecting fish of every kind. I learned that a half-century ago as a Democratic precinct chairman in suburban DeKalb County, Georgia, then trending hard Republican in a year when Richard Nixon was routing George McGovern nearly everywhere. Nixon carried DeKalb by a 77-23 margin, and pulled into local office a whole zoo of outlandish and unqualified candidates for judgeships and other positions requiring a bit of brains and experience. It took DeKalb years to get rid of some of those people. And that was back when people split tickets. That’s not much of a thing anymore.
So maybe helping ultra-MAGA extremists win Republican nominations marginally increases the odds Democrats can minimize GOP gains this November. But it also significantly increases the odds that if everything goes wrong the Republicans placed in power will be bad people with bad ideas. It’s not worth the risk.