One in a series of occasional articles.
BUFORD, Ga. — Representative Paul C. Broun earned national notoriety by invoking Hitler and Marxism to critique President Obama. He dismissed global warming as “one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community.” Evolution, the physician has warned, is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.”
Sounds like a candidate the Democratic Party could never get behind, right?
Not so fast.
To some Democrats, Broun’s extreme and colorful comments sound like sweet music, the makings of a perfect Republican candidate for Georgia’s open Senate seat — perfect, that is, if you want the Republican to lose.
“He’s so far out on the extreme, even for the people of Georgia, that he could be a key player in helping the Democrats win,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “There would be pages of comments that Democrats could use against him in a general election.”
As party leaders look ahead to the 2014 mid-term elections, some are looking for a replay of 2012, when Democrats honed a strategy that some credit for the surprising defeat of Republicans in Senate races in Indiana and Missouri.
Democrats, for example, ran ads that praised the credentials of a Republican candidate known for extreme right-wing views, hoping that would dim the chances of the more mainstream GOP contenders, those with the best chance of beating the Democratic nominee.
When the tactic worked and the fringe candidate won the primary, the Democrats then opened fire on his or her record of extreme views and combustible comments.
And this interparty “meddling,” as some labeled it, worked — at least it did in Indiana and Missouri.
There is, however, an ironic byproduct of this approach. While Democrats routinely denounce the intransigence of dogmatic Tea Party conservatives, they are in effect supporting their ascendance, both in numbers and clout, and helping to knock off the few remaining Republican moderates who might be open to compromise on major issues such as the budget, pollution regulation, gun control, and immigration.
A by-any-means approach to preserving the fragile Democratic majority in the Senate is, thus, helping increase the political polarization that afflicts the nation.
Yet the possibility of finding the next Todd Akin of Missouri or Sharron Angle of Nevada — to name two far-right conservatives whose primary victories paved the way for Democratic victories in tough elections — can be too tempting to resist.
Democrats and their allies — with tens of millions of dollars in superPAC cash and other streams of outside money — are actively researching the backgrounds and positions of insurgent candidates in Kentucky, Iowa, and North Carolina among other states with contested Senate primaries.
They are poring over video footage, records, and polling data in hopes of finding candidates they can boost in the primaries and then paint as extreme in the general election.
Georgia represents one of the most striking opportunities. The state’s Republican primary field is crowded and chaotic, with three members of the US House, a former Georgia secretary of state, and two wealthy businessmen among the field of seven vying to replace Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring.
In addition to Broun, Representative Phil Gingrey has also made statements that could be used against him in a general election.
“If I’m the Democrats, I’m trying to promote Paul Broun. I’m trying to promote Phil Gingrey,” said Joel McElhannon, a Georgia Republican consultant not involved in the race. “They’re the most likely candidates to really say something that would undermine the Republican Party’s chances to win next November.”
The Democratic establishment has coalesced around a first-time candidate, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of the popular moderate Democrat, Sam Nunn.
Party leaders hope Michelle Nunn can appeal to the middle and win in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Zell Miller left office at the beginning of 2005. But those hopes hinge, in large measure, on Nunn drawing a beatable opponent.
“There’s certain people and certain candidates, even if you’re not actively involved in a race, that just come across your radar for some of the more extreme things that they’ve said,” said Rodell J. Mollineau, president of American Bridge, a Democratic superPAC that collects opposition research used by a constellation of liberal political groups, including labor unions, Emily’s List, and the League of Conservation Votes.
“There are a few of those in Georgia,” he added with a chuckle.
The political calculus in Senate elections shifted sharply in 2010 when Democrats received a surprising gift — three of them actually. Insurgent Tea Party candidates won upset primary victories in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado, then stumbled in general elections against Democrats who had been perceived as vulnerable, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Nevada. The blunt language and antiestablishment fervor that made the candidates popular with the GOP base proved polarizing in general elections, sapping whatever advantage Republicans held.
Making own luck
By 2012, Democrats realized they could harness the Tea Party’s power to disrupt Republican primaries — “to make our own luck,” in the words of Adrianne Marsh, who served as campaign manager for Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat whose victorious campaign over Akin benefitted from the strategy.
Conservative groups such as Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the National Rifle Association got involved in a public way. But behind the scenes, Democrats and their allies also quietly worked to boost conservatives, even as their party railed publicly against Tea Party obstruction in Congress.
McCaskill was one of the GOP’s top Democratic targets in 2012, having won only a narrow victory in 2006 and running for reelection in a state where Mitt Romney was ahead of Obama in the polls (Romney went on to win Missouri by more than 9 percentage points).
“They were going to put Senator McCaskill’s head on a pike,” said Mollineau, of American Bridge.
But Democratic groups including American Bridge and the McCaskill campaign calculated that Akin, a conservative known for making off the cuff intemperate remarks, was the most likely among three Republican primary candidates to stumble in a general election.
“Our fate wasn’t certain either way, no matter who won that primary,” Marsh said in an e-mail. “But we always figured that our chances would be best with Akin.”
“He was a cowboy,” Mollineau said. “He just kind of shot off at the mouth.”
American Bridge had ample material that it could use against Akin, but it withheld all of that research firepower during the primary. Instead, it waged a campaign against Akin’s two primary opponents, the type of attacks meant to instill suspicion among conservatives. The group released research showing former state treasurer Sarah Steelman had voted for a tax increase when she was a state senator and a video highlighting government subsidies to John Brunner’s business.
Majority PAC, a group led by former aides to Reid, ran television ads criticizing Brunner’s jobs record. The McCaskill campaign followed up with three separate television ads — two that slammed Steelman and Brunner. The third, ostensibly aimed to hurt Akin, had the trappings of a negative ad but actually helped him with Republican voters, calling him “the most conservative congressman in Missouri” and “Missouri’s true conservative.”
“We threw the kitchen sink at it,” Marsh said. “Television ads labeling him as too conservative, social media, letters to the editor, you name it.”
Akin began to notice Democrats were on his side, but was too eager to win his primary to worry about it.
“We had kind of gotten the sense as we went along that the McCaskill campaign was looking at the various candidates, seeing who they wanted to run against,” Akin said in a phone interview. “Because I had a record, I think she thought I was a better target.”
Akin celebrated his primary victory in August in a suburban hotel ballroom, as campaign aides congratulated each for the underdog’s 6-point victory. Democrats also were celebrating. The next morning, they unleashed a flood of opposition research portraying Akin as an extremist and a political hypocrite who had attacked Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs while requesting budget earmarks for his own favored programs.
The Democrats’ strategy yielded its biggest payoff 10 days later, when a local television interview made Akin a national name.
“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Akin declared, defending his view that abortion should not be legal even for rape victims.
Democrats pounced, and even many Republicans, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, denounced Akin publicly.
“Their plan was to make Todd look like the leader of the neanderthal idiots from the right, just completely out of touch with the real world,” Akin said of Democrats, though he blamed his own comment and Republicans who shied away from him for his downfall.
A few hundred miles away in Indiana, Democratic groups employed a similar strategy, withholding opposition research against Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer, while relentlessly attacking Richard Lugar, an elder statesman of the Senate known for bold agreements with Democrats on significant issues — including nuclear nonproliferation.
When antiestablishment conservatives began attacking Lugar for lacking a home in Indiana, Democratic groups joined in. American Bridge fed research to reporters and created a website, “Virginia is for Lugars,” full of videos and stories mocking the Indiana senator’s home in McLean, Va.
“The third party groups played a huge role. They kept issues on the front burner,” said Brian Howey, publisher of an Indiana political newsletter since 1994. “The whole residency thing, when it first surfaced, I thought it might be a weeklong issue, or several news cycles. It lasted almost two months.”
American Bridge even attacked Lugar on conservative issues, knocking him for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, a stance with which most Democrats agree, believing that to do otherwise would risk putting the nation into default.
Mourdock won the primary. Like Akin, he imploded in the general election, saying during a debate that “even when life begins in the horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended.”
Gloating over wins
Though they could not have predicted the self-destructive gaffes, Democrats gloated over their victories. Hoping to spread knowledge about the strategy, Mollineau assessed his group’s success in recent article “Anatomy of a Tea Party Takedown,” that he wrote for the trade publication Campaigns and Elections.
“Anyone who had bothered to take a cursory look at their records knew Akin and Mourdock were time bombs waiting to explode,” he wrote.
Mainstream Republicans have begun fighting back.
“What we learned in Indiana in 2012 is that even in a deep red state, when the Democrats put up their best candidate against a flawed candidate, we have the potential to lose,” said a top Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss the Indiana race.
The Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads super-PAC initiated an effort in February to take a more aggressive role in Republican primaries, to bolster mainstream candidates and keep insurgent Republican groups at bay, while also preparing to counter Democratic meddling.
“The Democrats had tremendous success in 2010 and 2012 in picking the Republican candidates that they wanted to face in the general. It was so successful that we fully expect them to repeat or expand this strategy in 2014,” said Jonathan Collegio, the group’s spokesman.
Under the microscope
The Republican candidates in Georgia are well aware that their Senate primary, even at this early stage, is being studied by interest groups from across the political spectrum.
During a muggy August barbecue at a lakefront pavilion, hundreds of local and state Republican activists ate pulled-pork sandwiches and peach cobbler and listened to country music, while House and Senate candidates worked the crowd. The annual “Grillin’ with the Governor” is an opportunity to reach Georgia’s most influential party leaders, long before next year’s primary.
Polls show the field divided among four or five top Senate candidates, the candidates milling in the crowd observed. It won’t take many votes to keep the more moderate candidates out of the expected two-person primary runoff. Democrats, in fact, can vote in the Republican primary, amplifying the potential for mischief.
“This race is so dicey,” said Representative Jack Kingston, a Senate candidate with mainstream Republican backing, who may prove a top target for Democrats during the primary. “Because it’s just a classic, open-seat multicandidate shoot-out that anybody can come in there and influence, say 20,000 voters, which would knock somebody out of the runoff.’’
Several candidates said they have been followed by “trackers’’ from both political parties taking video in search of embarrassing statements, now a standard practice in political campaigns.
Broun stands tall, wearing a Marines cap and grinning as he sips iced tea and chats. He knows Republican primaries are often a contest for the party’s right flank. He said he will become a senator regardless of what Democrats do and is happy that trackers from both parties are after him.
“My opponents are showing up on both sides, Democrats as well as Republicans,” he said. “That’s fine. I am what I am and I don’t back away from who I am and what I’m all about.”
Gingrey dismissed any suggestion that he is one of the Democrats’ favorite potential opponents.
In a conversation with a party activist, he tried to make the case that he is the best equipped to beat Nunn.
“Even this liberal leaning poll said that I stack up the best against her,” he said, referring to an August survey by Public Policy Polling indicating that Nunn and Gingrey would be tied with 41 percent of the vote in a general election matchup. “It’s encouraging.”
Party officials at the barbecue said they have seen cross-party primary meddling at the local level for years, to little effect. “There is not a Democrat who can beat any one of these candidates,” said Ron Johnson, 66, a state committeeman. “They won’t beat Paul Broun in this state and he’s the most extreme one.”
Another Republican at the barbecue, Fred Hemphill, a retired state employee, said he supports Broun because “he’ll stand up for what he believes,” though he knows some people would never vote for Broun in a general election. But Hemphill bristles at the notion that Democrats might try to pick a winner.
“I’d rather they stay out of it,” he said. “That’s just dirty politics.”