Democrats put election interference to the test
Democrats meddle in Republican races and wait to see a risky move play out
John Gibbs, a Trump endorsee running for Congress in Michigan’s highly competitive 3rd District, was the target of an attack ad during the August primary that said he was “too conservative for west Michigan.” Rather than trying to assure Gibbs’ defeat, the ad blasted out specifically to conservatives to galvanize them to vote for him.
Gibbs, a political commentator and former missionary, campaigned on claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. He defeated incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, whose family is a well-known philanthropic name in the state. Meijer also was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump. But Meijer wasn’t behind the provocative ad. At the bottom of the television commercial, it said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) approved the message. Gibbs narrowly defeated Meijer by roughly 4 percentage points.
Meijer is now concluding his term, and he stopped to chat last week on the steps of the U.S. Capitol before heading inside to vote. “It’s hypocrisy and grandstanding,” he said of the Democrats’ ad buys. “They’re claiming that Republicans are a threat to democracy, while at the same time spending money to elevate those Republicans just to marginally boost their prospects in a couple of races.”
The DCCC ads were part of a larger reverse-psychology strategy to prop up more conservative candidates in the primaries in the hopes they’ll be easier to topple in the general election. According to Open Secrets, Democrats poured more than $44 million into high-profile Republican primary campaigns, mostly in television and digital ads in at least 13 districts, including in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado. The results of the strategy were mixed, and some mainstream GOP candidates won in spite of the reverse psychology.
Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro spent more than $850,000 on ads, but not for himself. The ads promoted Republican state senator Doug Mastriano, saying things like, “A win for Mastriano is a win for Trump.” Mastriano went on to clinch the Republican nomination. He joked to Lancaster Online, “I’m going to have to send [Shapiro] a thank you card.”
In a recent speech in Philadelphia, President Joe Biden declared that MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans are a threat to the country. “Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans: We must be stronger, more determined, and more committed to saving American democracy than MAGA Republicans are to destroying it.”
This made some Democrats scratch their heads when they saw the party rolling out ads to promote these same far-right candidates. A group of 35 Democratic former lawmakers issued an open letter in August condemning the DCCC and any other party-affiliated entities that engage in the “risky and unethical” practice. In a social media post, Democratic U.S. House candidate Dean Phillips of Minnesota called it a misuse of campaign funds.
Pennsylvania-based Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas said the practice is not new, but it has only recently become prevalent. In 2012, then–U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri paid for a flurry of ads to target Republican voters and call her opponent, Todd Akin, too conservative. She won the general election with 54.7 percent of the vote to his 39.2 percent. Nicholas said the strategy is a high-risk, high-reward game that might become a new trend in campaigns.
“It has not been very common until this year,” Nicholas said. “There has been lots of hand-wringing from Democrats fretting across the country. What if they pushed these ‘election-denier’ candidates across the primary line, and then they win? It’s kind of a devil’s choice, and we don’t know whether it works until Nov. 9.”
In Michigan, Gibbs has struggled to keep up with Democratic counterpart Hillary Scholten. The latest analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report categorizes the district as “leans Democrat,” indicating it could flip in November.
Retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc handily won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell funding Republican campaigns against him. Bolduc repeated Trump’s claims of election fraud and vowed not to certify 2024 results if he wins a Senate seat. Since winning the primary, he has been trying to rebrand, but Democratic nominee Maggie Hassan has a nearly 10 percentage point lead, according to latest polling.
Virginia was a different story. Democratic super PAC Patriot Majority spent more money on Republican candidate Jarome Bell than he spent on himself. Bell, who was running for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, had called for an audit of the state’s 2020 presidential election results and compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany. Despite ads that linked him as an “America First conservative” and connected him to Trump’s push for election audits, Bell barely received 27 percent of the vote.
In Arizona’s gubernatorial battle, the DCCC put out an ad criticizing Republican primary candidate Karrin Taylor Robson for donating to the Democratic Party in the past. Former television anchor and Kari Lake, who supports Trump’s claims of a stolen election, won the GOP nomination and is now statistically tied with current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
Some Democratic strategists said the ploy was a winning strategy during an atypical year. Although most pundits expected a “red wave” of Republican wins during the midterm cycle, enough races are a toss-up that the GOP has to fight harder than expected to preserve and pick up seats in Congress. Others said they were simply getting a head start on the general election. David Turner, a strategist for the Democratic Governors Association told CNN that the organization was trying to educate the public about “MAGA extremism” and that wins by MAGA Republicans indicated not Democratic interference but increasing polarization: “It’s time for the GOP to look in the mirror and have a reckoning with itself, instead of trying to find someone else to blame.”
Meijer admitted that a shift to the political fringes also contributed to his electoral loss. But he criticized politicians on both sides of the aisle for catering to polarization.
“What my career to date has lacked in duration, it certainly has made up for in intensity of living through a really dysfunctional political moment,” Meijer said. “In a cynical way, it’s a smart thing for the Democrats to make sure there are as few members of the other party trying to appeal to the broad electorate.”
From a campaign perspective, Nicholas said running ads to promote opposite party candidates in the hopes to crush them in the general election is like playing with fire.
“A lot of us can’t wait to pay it back in the future,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a gentleman’s agreement, but there’s been a hesitation to go play on the other side. Obviously, Democrats had no qualms about that. So no holds barred now.”
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