Democrats are attempting to steer the course of Republican primaries at an unprecedented level ahead of November’s midterm elections, spending millions of dollars to promote GOP candidates they view as weak ― even if those candidates embrace the very lies about the 2020 election that the party calls an existential threat to democracy.
National Democratic groups and leading Democratic candidates have spent millions of dollars in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania to promote Republicans who both parties believe will struggle to win, even in a political environment shaped by high inflation and low approval ratings for President Joe Biden.
Working to influence the other party’s primaries has become common for Democrats and Republicans alike, in the years since former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) famously promoted the late far-right Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) so she could face him in her 2012 Senate bid. But the scale and spending of current Democratic efforts ― public spending now tops $10 million ― have little precedent.
Picking their opponent has paid off in the past for Democrats. They have their bare-minimum Senate majority in part because they worked to get an easier opponent for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in 2018. But the growing authoritarian bent of the GOP, the willingness of conservative candidates to embrace former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, and the Republican-leaning political environment all make such maneuvering a trickier proposition.
Democratic operatives have generally defended their efforts to shape Republican primaries as a bare-knuckle but necessary tactic to survive in a challenging political environment, noting ads that promote a candidate to GOP primary voters can also serve as effective attacks for a general election audience.
But pundits both on the left and among “Never Trump” conservatives have criticized the strategy as risky, and reminiscent of the party’s hopes in 2016 that Trump himself, a supposedly “unelectable” candidate, would secure the GOP presidential nomination.
“In an environment like this, you want to go against a candidate that gives you the best chance to win. But there are no guarantees in this business,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist. “But sometimes you have to push the crazy person over the top, and play the odds.”
In Pennsylvania, Mikus has pronounced himself “schizophrenic” over the victory of far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano in the GOP gubernatorial primary last month. Mastriano, who attended the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., and has fully embraced Trump’s election lies, is widely seen as unelectable. But $5 gas could turn the politically impossible into a plausible outcome.
“For Mastriano to win, it would have to be an absolute disaster we’ve never seen anything like. But the environment’s bad, and it could get worse,” Mikus said.
The latest example of this kind of Democratic gamble is in Colorado, where a freshly formed group, Democratic Colorado, has started running ads attacking state Rep. Ron Hanks (R) as “too conservative.” The ads are a clear attempt to raise GOP voters’ awareness and opinion of Hanks, who attended the Jan. 6 rally outside the U.S. Capitol and has raised only paltry sums for his campaign.
“He says Joe Biden’s election was a fraud. Hanks wants to ban all abortions, and he wants to build Trump’s border wall,” a narrator says in the 30-second ad, which began airing Wednesday.
Hanks’ dedication to election denial is real: The opening ad of his campaign showed him blowing up a Dominion voting machine. He’s also admitted to crossing police barricades during the insurrection – although he also claimed the event was a false flag operation, with Black Lives Matter and antifa activists breaching the Capitol.
That’s led some Colorado Democrats to question the strategy behind the spots.
“It is harmful to democracy,” Dan Grossman, a former Colorado state legislator, wrote on Twitter. “Americans who value the rule of law, regardless of party and partisan advantage, should ensure that seditionists like Hanks never see the ballot as a major party nominee.”
The timing of the ad’s debut was not a coincidence. Wednesday was the first day a group could begin airing ads without having to reveal its donors before Hanks faces Joe O’Dea, a comparatively moderate businessman, in the June 28 Republican primary. Unlike Hanks, O’Dea has recognized Biden as the legitimate victor of the 2020 election. Neither candidate is particularly well known, and the winner will face Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in November.
In the past, Senate Majority PAC ― a super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) ― has funded pop-up groups like Democratic Colorado to try and influence GOP primaries.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is barred from directly coordinating with super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited amounts, seemed to request ads highlighting Hanks’ conservatism and bashing O’Dea for supporting Democrats in the past with a post on a public website.
O’Dea’s campaign said the interference is proof he’s a real threat to Bennet in blue-tinted Colorado, and released internal polling showing him with a healthy lead over Hanks before the Democratic Colorado’s ads began.
“[Democrats] are gonna try to steal this election, because they don’t want to spend the money they’re going to have to spend against me this fall,” O’Dea said in a radio interview Thursday. “I’m a real candidate.”
So far, however, the Democratic Governors Association has been the most proactive in GOP primaries, taking steps to shape contests in Illinois, Colorado and Nevada. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the party’s nominee for governor in the Keystone State, also ran ads aiming to ensure he’d face Mastriano in the general election.
Mastriano, who would have the power to appoint Pennsylvania’s top elections official if he wins the governorship, won with the former president’s endorsement. He’s suggested he would decline to certify the 2024 election unless a Republican wins.
Shapiro’s ads, which similarly attacked Mastriano as a far-right conservative, were likely not the determining factor in his victory. He consistently led in polling, news outlets regularly covered his history of extreme views, and Pennsylvania’s other major GOP candidates for governor similarly endorsed Trump’s lies about the election.
“It’s not our fault Republican voters in Pennsylvania wanted this,” a Democratic operative who worked on the race said, providing a link to a story about Mastriano’s long history of comparing events to the Holocaust.
Trump’s election denialism holds considerable power over many GOP candidates and voters, and it’s led some Democrats to conclude the threat to democracy would be the same no matter which candidate makes it to a general election.
“Sometimes in campaigns the difference between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extreme’ candidate is just in the rhetoric, and really their policy positions ― or willingness to disregard the will of the people ― are pretty much the same,” said Adam Bozzi, the communications director for the liberal group End Citizens United. “A radical disguised as a moderate can be very dangerous for democracy.”
In its various efforts to shape GOP primaries, the Democratic Governors Association has tried to shrink the chances of the GOP establishment’s preferred candidates ― Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo in Nevada, University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl and Illinois state Sen. Richard Irvin.
Still, Democrats don’t have to go back far to see the potential risks of their strategy. In 2020, national Democrats spent millions trying to boost former Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Trump acolyte and anti-immigration zealot, believing he would give their Senate candidate, state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a chance to win in a typically red state.
The campaign failed, with Republicans nominating Rep. Roger Marshall instead. Marshall went on to defeat Bollier in the Senate race by almost 12 percentage points ― a margin indicating Kobach almost certainly would have won the general as well.