WASHINGTON — In the run up to the 2016 election, some in Hillary Clinton’s campaign felt sure that elevating the most extreme candidates in the GOP primary, like Donald Trump, could only help Democrats’ cause.
But if anyone felt giddy as Trump cruised through the primaries, squashing his more establishment rivals and drawing fierce criticism for his more outlandish statements, they were dismayed in November as he defeated Clinton.
It’s a scenario some Democrats are fearing they are about to watch in re-run form, as Democratic-aligned groups and campaigns have poured millions of dollars into Republican primaries in an attempt to boost far-right or election-denying candidates they believe will be easier for Democrats to beat in November.
“Do we really know which one’s going to be the weaker of the candidates all the time? I don’t know,” said Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist in 2016, who said he does not like the practice. “Not a lot of people thought Donald Trump would be the strongest candidate in 2016. Turns out he was, right?”
In at least eight gubernatorial, House, and Senate races, Democratic candidates and groups have spent money to endear extreme candidates to GOP primary voters. The ads have tied candidates to Trump or highlighted their more hard-right views at a time in the election cycle when such messages are likely to help them among primary voters. The boosted group includes candidates who reportedly chartered buses to the rally ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection or held hearings to question the 2020 election results.
Now that several of those candidates have become their party’s nominees, Democrats will find out if their more far-right positions really do turn off voters in the general election, as the strategy’s defenders believe. The tactic is being employed at a time when President Biden’s approval rating is under water and his party is bracing for losses in the midterm elections. Those who support the ads argue that Democrats need to do whatever it takes to win and that more extreme GOP candidates are often not that much more far-right than other Republicans in the field.
To some who fear these candidates are a threat to the nation’s fragile democratic system, the gambit seems breathlessly irresponsible.
“It’s an extremely shortsighted and ill-thought-through strategy,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow who specializes on democracy, conflict, and governance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Democracy really needs to be the rules of the game that allow both sides to win in free and fair elections. The Republican Party has been harming that in many, many ways. The Democratic Party does not need to cause further harm by boosting the chances of extreme candidates who could win in the general election.”
Even if they don’t win, she added, elevating these candidates spreads a “toxic form of politics in the country.”
This cycle, boosting a staunch conservative often means boosting an election denier. Most of the GOP candidates that Democrats helped have sought to cast doubts on the 2020 presidential election results. Doug Mastriano, a state senator who is now the GOP nominee in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, was so supportive of Trump’s efforts to stay in power after losing the election that he has been called to testify before the Jan. 6 committee. If Mastriano wins in November, he would be able to appoint the top elections official in the battleground state.
“I just think that is extraordinarily dangerous,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told CNN when asked about this type of spending, pointing to Trump as an example of how it could backfire. “We should have understood in 2016 that having someone who seems outrageous and extremist is not an advance for our country, and actually, that person could end up winning.”
Mark Longabaugh, a political strategist who worked on Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said he thinks the strategy raises a “moral question.” Trying to boost an extreme candidate in a swing district may increase Democrats’ odds of winning, “but you may well end up with a racist crackpot in the United States Congress because you meddled in their primary.”
Boosting more extreme candidates in the hopes of defeating them is a common tactic deployed by both parties, and one that long predates the rise of Trump. Former senator Claire McCaskill famously made a $1.7 million dollar investment in the 2012 Missouri race to “manipulate” the GOP primary and land Todd Akin as her general opponent by running ads that highlighted his conservative bona fides. When he won the primary, she celebrated by shotgunning a beer, she wrote in her memoir. McCaskill handily beat Akin, who infamously mused that women could not get pregnant if they were victims of “legitimate rape,” in the general.
But in a recent interview with NPR, the former senator conceded the political moment has changed since she won. “It’s different today,” she said. “I’m not sure you could count on Republican leaders to stand up and reject a candidate that said things that were abhorrent to most voters.” Still, she said the strategy could be effective in some races.
Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s national political director in 2016, said boosting far-right candidates is a risky endeavor, given they are more likely to saturate general elections with misinformation, which shifts traditional campaign debates away from matters of policy.
“In extreme world, the way folks are winning is just blanketing misinformation, and so the whole conversation in the general election becomes, is the lie real or not?” she said.
But Renteria said she understands Democrats’ frustration and willingness to try out a potentially perilous strategy to win, given recent Republican electoral successes. “You play by the rules, someone else doesn’t, and they win,” she said.
The tactic has a mixed record even just this cycle. Ron Hanks, a Colorado Senate candidate, Lori Saine, who was seeking a Colorado congressional seat, and Chris Mathys, who was seeking the nomination in a California congressional race, have all lost their primaries despite Democratic efforts to give them momentum. But in at least four other races where Democrats or liberal groups intervened, an extreme candidate has emerged as the nominee.
The race that has generated the most controversy among House Democrats is that of Michigan GOP Representative Peter Meijer, one of just ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm to which House Democrats pay dues, spent more than $420,000 to boost John Gibbs, a Trump-endorsed candidate who has claimed there were “anomalies” in the 2020 election. Gibbs won by less than four percentage points.
“This is not an insignificant amount of money for the Gibbs campaign, nor is it an insignificant act by Democrats,” Meijer wrote in a blog post a day ahead of the primary. “Conventional wisdom dictates that these extreme candidates are less electable than the normal Republicans Democrats targeted to defeat. But ... less-electable doesn’t mean un-electable.”
Defenders of the strategy argue the differences between Meijer and Gibbs are minimal. Both would likely take similar votes on issues like abortion and in support of California Representative Kevin McCarthy, who objected to the 2020 election results, as speaker in a GOP-held House. “The DCCC will do whatever it takes to keep the gavel out of Kevin McCarthy’s hands,” said Matt Corridoni, a spokesperson for the group.
Those in favor of using the tactic noted the immediate results. A couple of days after Meijer lost, the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the district from a “toss up” seat to one that leans Democrat. At the end of the day, these strategists say, their job is to win.
It’s also not like they’re twisting voters’ arms to pick extreme candidates, they point out. The voters are ultimately the ones who are making up their minds to support the extreme candidates— all Democrats are doing is using the same ads they would use in the general election a little early. One of the ads run during the primary by Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania Democrat facing Mastriano in the gubernatorial race, said that if Mastriano wins, “it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” The campaign defended it by noting that Mastriano was already leading the field and they were simply kicking off the general election early.
“I think the context that has been missing in some of the critiques of what’s been going on is ...they seem to think that there exists a mythical, moderate Republican in these primaries, and they don’t exist,” Turner said. “It’s not like the second choice candidate was going to be somehow a better option. There are no better options.”