Throughout the late spring and into the summer, Democratic operatives made a series of risky choices to elevate Republican candidates who wholeheartedly embraced former President Donald Trump’s cornucopia of lies about the 2020 presidential election.
In Republican primary after Republican primary, Democrats aired ads serving two purposes: promoting seemingly unelectable candidates to the GOP base while attacking them for a general election audience. The ads noted how close the Republican candidates were to Trump, played up their support for strict restrictions or bans on abortion and other things the GOP base loved but general election voters hated.
On election night, those risky bets paid off. All six of the election-denying candidates on the ballot whom Democrats boosted ― three gubernatorial candidates, two House candidates and a Senate candidate ― lost, most of them resoundingly.
The strategy was met with scorn and incredulity from “never Trump” Republicans. Other Democrats from across the party’s ideological spectrum said the strategy was unwise, immoral or both. Thirty-five former Democratic elected officials signed a letter suggesting the party was playing with fire.
“Our democracy is fragile, therefore we cannot tolerate political parties attempting to prop up candidates whose message is to erode our dedication to fair elections,” the officials wrote in August.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost in July. “You may select somebody who actually wins, and then you hurt the country as well as your own party.”
Not all of Democrats’ attempts to meddle worked. They tried to boost a conservative candidate running in Republican Rep. David Valadao’s district in the Central Valley of California to no avail, and they spent more than $4 million backing Ron Hanks in Colorado’ Senate primary.
The cash in Colorado had become particularly controversial since some of it was used to promote the eventual GOP nominee, Joe O’Dea, as a moderate. But Sen. Michael Bennet (D) easily dispatched O’Dea, winning by 13 percentage points.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Prtizker, a billionaire businessman, was the first to deploy the strategy, pouring tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the Democratic Governors’ Association, which aired ads boosting ultra-conservative state Sen. Darren Bailey in the primary. As of midnight on Tuesday, Prtizker was winning his race by roughly 14 percentage points.
Democrats used similar tactics to ensure Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Maryland state Del. Dan Cox would win gubernatorial primaries they were likely to win anyway. Both ultra-conservative candidates ran nearly nonexistent general election campaigns, and Democrats romped in the two mid-Atlantic states.
“In a cycle like this, where Republicans try to rewrite history by scrubbing their websites and downplaying extreme beliefs they ran on in primaries, defining Republicans early was a critical component of our strategy this year,” said Noam Lee, the executive director of the Democratic Governors’ Association.
The most important involvement may have been in the U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire. After establishment Republicans began airing ads attacking retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, the main Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, began airing ads designed to boost him and attack Republican Chuck Morse.
Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan was considered vulnerable in the Granite State, but after hammering Bolduc for a variety of extreme comments and positions on everything from abortion rights to the FBI to the opioid epidemic, she ultimately cruised to an 11-point victory, a margin better than President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential win over Trump.
Hassan’s win, along with other results on Tuesday night, especially Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s victory, has significantly narrowed the GOP’s path to a Senate majority. They now have to win two of Georgia, Arizona or Nevada to gain the 51-seat majority they need.
In a pre-election interview, a GOP Senate strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said Democrats’ interference in the state could make the difference. Morse, the state Senate president, would have two major assets Bolduc lacked.
“First of all, he had the allegiance of the governor, who would’ve been all in for him,” the strategist said. (Bolduc had once suggested popular Gov. Chris Sununu was sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party.)
The second asset? “He had the business and political connections to be a major donor fundraiser instead of nickel-and-diming it with online fundraising,” the strategist continued. (Hassan raised $38.8 million this cycle, compared with just $2.2 million for Bolduc.)
Finally, Democrats worked to get weaker candidates in two House seats. They pushed Bob Burns in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the state’s western half and is the more Democratic of the two congressional districts. Rep. Annie Kuster ended up romping, with a 16-percentage-point lead as of 2 a.m. EST Wednesday.
The final district where Democrats interfered may have seen the most hubbub. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), a military veteran and heir to a grocery store fortune who represented a district based around Grand Rapids, had become a darling of “never Trump” Republicans after supporting Trump’s impeachment. Democrats boosted his opponent, John Gibbs, with ads in the primary, spending more on the spots than Gibbs had managed to raise himself.
On Wednesday morning, The Associated Press called the district for Democrat Hillary Scholten.
Meijer, for his part, had fumed in an essay written shortly before his loss: “Republican voters will be blamed if any of these candidates are ultimately elected, but there is no doubt Democrats’ fingerprints will be on the weapon. We should never forget it.”
Turns out the weapon never fired.