Even as national Democrats are sounding the alarm about the threat posed by far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing an enormously risky strategy: They’re promoting some of these far-right candidates in GOP primaries in hopes that extremists will make it easier for the Democrats to bat in November.
Those efforts — strongest in California’s Central Valley, where a Democratic campaign ad lashed out at Rep. David Valadao, a Republican, for voting to impeach Donald J. Trump — have sparked angry blame-pointing and intra-party debate over the dangers and wisdom of the strategy, especially in the midst of the Jan. 6 committee hearings on the attack on the Capitol.
The concern is clear: In a year when rising gas prices and bewildering inflation have wiped out President Biden’s approval ratings, Republican candidates whom Democrats may deem uneligible could win on party affiliation alone.
“I realize that this kind of political wit has always existed, but our country is in a very different place now than it has been in previous cycles,” said New York Democrat Rep. Kathleen Rice. “It is outrageous for these democratic groups to spend money raising a person who they know wants to tear down this democracy.”
Republican targets questioned how to defy their leadership and conduct difficult voting when their former allies in the Democratic Party lie in wait.
“I voted the way I voted because I felt it was important,” Mr. Valadao said of his impeachment vote. “But to get us to a point where we vote for these things and then try to use them as ammunition against us in the campaigns and put people in a position who might see them as a threat to democracy , in which they can become members of Congress tells me they are not serious about governing.”
Democrats’ efforts reach well beyond Mr. Valadao’s race. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party has singled out State Senator Doug Mastriano during his successful search for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, despite his dissemination of false claims about the 2020 election and his participation in the Jan. 6 protests behind the White House alleging the uprising in the Capitol immediately preceded it.
In Southern California, a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, Asif Mahmood, flooded the Orange County airwaves with ads that portrayed his candidacy as a contest between himself and a conservative anti-abortionist, Greg Raths, and helped Mr. Raths by never mentioning the leading Republican the race, Representative Young Kim, the incumbent and a much more moderate candidate. Instead, Lord Raths’ support for the overthrow of Roe v. Wade and the abortion ban, as well as his affinity with “pro-Trump Republicans” — stances that could both appeal to Republican primary voters and anger Democrats in a general election. (The effort was unsuccessful: Ms Kim held off Mr Raths and advanced against Mr Mahmood in the November elections.)
And in Colorado, a shadowy new group called Democratic Colorado is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the June 28 state primary to spread the conservative views of State Rep. Ron Hanks, who hopes to defeat Senator Michael Bennet, a sitting Democrat, to challenge. Mr. Hanks’ views would be broadly shared by Republican primary voters. Unmentioned – for now – was Mr. Hanks’ boast about the Jan. 6 march on the Capitol, his false claim that those who attacked the Capitol were leftist “Antifa,” and his unfounded insistence that the 2020 election be presided over by President Biden were stolen.
The topics of the House Committee hearings on January 6th
Alvina Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado, would not say who funded the group and insisted there was nothing improper about the ads.
“It’s important to highlight who’s running on the Republican side,” she said, adding, “The general election is just around the corner.”
But Ms. Vasquez acknowledged the group had only one target: Mr. Hanks, not the more moderate Republican in the primary, businessman Joe O’Dea. The Bennet campaign declined to comment.
The Democrats involved acknowledge the game they’re playing, but insist they have one job — to keep their party’s narrow majority in the House of Representatives — and that they’re only targeting the races where extremist candidates miss out in November be able.
“House Majority PAC was formed with a mission to do whatever is necessary to achieve a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and we will continue to do so in 2022,” said Abby Curran Horrell, Executive director of the committee affiliated with the Democratic leadership.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, defended his campaign ad in which he declared a victory for Mr. Mastriano in the Republican gubernatorial primary as “a victory for what Donald Trump stands for.”
“What we did was start the general election campaign and show the clear contrast, the stark differences between him and me,” Mr. Shapiro said on CNN.
But it’s not clear that Democrats will be able to stay in control of what they might unleash, especially in a year when their party’s president is suffering from record-low approval ratings and inflation rates are as high as they have been in 40 years no more. A Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday found Mr Shapiro just 4 percentage points ahead of Mr Mastriano in the state’s crucial race for governor.
No matter how confident Democratic insiders sound about their chances against extremist Republicans, the inherent danger of playing with fire brings back stomach-wrenching memories for some Democrats.
After all, they also thought that nominating Mr. Trump in 2016 was a surefire ticket to a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, arguably created the modern genre of interference in the other party’s nomination process by running an ad in 2012 that included far-right Congressman Todd Akin in the Republican Senate primary.
But Ms. McCaskill said the intervening years had raised the stakes too high in all but a few races.
“Nobody believed – including Donald Trump – that he would be elected president,” Ms McCaskill said. “Campaigns need to be very sober in their decision-making. They must be confident that when the most extreme candidate rises to the nomination, they can prevail.”
Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Meijer was particularly outraged that the Democratic House majority party spent nearly $40,000 in the media markets of Bakersfield and Fresno, California, to air an ad chastising Mr. Valadao for his impeachment vote , while his opponent as “a real conservative”
It’s impossible to say what effect the ad had, but with votes still being counted in California’s 22nd congressional district, Mr. Valadao is clinging to a 1,400-vote lead over Mr. Mathys for the final spot in November’s runoff.
“Pro-Trump Republican Chris Mathys: Military Veteran, Local Businessman,” blared the Democrat ad. “Or the politician David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump. Republicans – it’s time to decide.”
The ad aired ahead of the Jan. 6 hearings that Republicans who have opposed Mr. Trump have idolized. But by using those votes against those Republicans to political advantage, said Mr. Meijer — another of the 10 House Republicans who voted to indict Mr. Trump on inciting a Capitol riot — said Democratic campaigns have trivialized the issue, even as the hearings raised it as a deadly threat to the American experiment.
And that, Mr Meijer said, made it easier for Republicans to dismiss the hearings as political theatre.
Mr Meijer, whose own primary campaign against a Trump-backed opponent is scheduled for Aug. 2, condemned the Democratic dissonance as “deep moralizing amid par-for-the-course hypocrisy.” Already, he said, the loudest voices raised by his main opponent, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who once accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign boss of performing satanic rituals, are those of the Democrats, not the Republicans.
For Democrats, the clear precedent is Ms. McCaskill’s near-legendary advertisement in which she secretly made Mr. Akin her opponent in her 2012 re-election. Two other Republicans in this year’s primary would have been far stronger opponents in a Republican-leaning state with Barack Obama on the re-election ballot. By comparison, Mr Akin was underfunded, undisciplined and, as she put it, “a bit odd”.
The words in the ad may have been ominous to general election voters, but Ms. McCaskill’s list of details against Mr. Akin – read in a friendly singsong narration – was music to the ears of Republican primary voters: “A crusader against a larger government ‘ with a ‘family-friendly agenda’ that would ban many forms of contraception. “And Akin alone says President Obama is a complete threat to our civilization.”
“Todd Akin, Missouri’s true conservative,” the ad said, with a meaningful pause before it ended, “is just too conservative.”
Mr. Akin won the Republican primary by a majority of the vote, then lost to Ms. McCaskill by nearly 16 percentage points.
Ms. McCaskill said that in some counties, like Mr. Valadao’s, where voters are heavily Democratic-leaning, the tactics remain sound. But, she added, the stakes are much higher in 2022 than they were a decade ago.
“I’ve decided internally that I’m OK with the idea that I could be responsible for him becoming a United States Senator,” she said of Mr. Akin, adding that she didn’t have the same calculation for some of the current ones Republican Harvest.
Beyond individual candidates, Republican leadership has changed, Ms McCaskill added. Their bet that Mr. Akin’s undisciplined propensity to muzzle paid dividends when Mr. Akin famously said that sexual assault victims don’t get pregnant because “if it’s legitimate rape, the female rape body has ways of trying to end it all.”
Aside from the damage done by those words, Mr. Akin’s own party made him an outcast, avoided him, and ensured his defeat. Republican leaders can’t be counted on to cut down any candidates this campaign season, she said.
Ms. Rice made the same point, adding that every dollar spent meddling in a Republican primary is a dollar not directly spent to help at-risk Democratic incumbents.
“We should support our own frontliners,” she said, “not rely on insurgents.”