The Democrats are trying to beat the Republicans at their own game this midterm cycle, meddling in a number of GOP primaries with the hope that it’ll improve their odds in November. But the strategy has required the party to spend tens of millions of dollars boosting election deniers, and if it backfires, the Democrats will have to shoulder some of the blame for helping those far-right candidates into office.
Democrats have spent at least $43,885,000 on advertising campaigns in races across six states. While the tactic has struggled to see success in congressional races, their efforts to highlight candidates who they believe will be easier to defeat in the general election finally paid off this week after Michigan Representative Peter Meijer was ousted by John Gibbs, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, would have been a more formidable opponent for the Democratic Party in the general election. So, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent $435,000 on ads promoting his primary opponent to Republican voters as a candidate “handpicked by Trump to run for Congress.”
On Tuesday, Gibbs, who has repeatedly pushed Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was “stolen,” won the Republican nomination for Meijer’s district. He will face Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten in November.
While the political trick is not new, experts warn that embracing it at a time when the American people are facing the “fundamental issue” of growing distrust in government and the electoral process, has dangerous ramifications.
“This choice by the DCCC to put a huge amount of money into supporting far-right candidates who support the conspiracy theories about a fraudulent election, is another egregious attack on people’s trust in our government,” Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the founding executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, told Newsweek.
It’s a risky move for the Democrats to boost these candidates, yet the DCCC, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and the House Majority PAC have run TV spots for a handful of election deniers.
Last month, the DGA and Democratic incumbent Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker dropped $35 million on ads elevating Republican state Senator Darren Bailey. In Maryland, the DGA booked almost $1.2 million of airwaves to emphasize Republican state Representative Dan Cox. The House Majority PAC also spent thousands on Chris Mathys in California and Lori Saine in Colorado, while the local chapters in Colorado put millions into highlighting Ron Hanks and Greg Lopez. Bailey, Cox, Mathys, Saine, Hanks and Lopez have all denied the legitimacy of the last presidential election.
Robert Lieberman, author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy and political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, said it’s “really risky” when political elites act as if winning is the most important thing.
“If they’re willing to throw those things out in order to win elections, then that spells trouble,” he told Newsweek.
Lieberman said Republicans have, for some time, been using more drastic measures to declare victory, which culminated in Trump’s election fraud claims and the January 6 Capitol riot. But, he added, “when the other party starts to play along,” it could lead American democracy on a downward spiral.
While Lieberman said he understands the temptation for Democrats to play “tit-for-tat” hardball, he called it an “extremely cynical and questionable strategy.”
Partisanship has become the core of most Americans’ political identity, so more people are willing to tolerate these tactics when it’s their party that’s behaving in that way. Yet, experts still say it’s a hypocritical move from a party that has touted themselves as upholding the rules and norms of democracy. They say that using strategies designed to win at any cost reduces the Democrats’ long-held claim to America’s moral high ground.
Ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Meijer slammed the political trick, telling Politico that he’s “sick and tired of hearing the sanctimonious bulls–t about the Democrats being the pro-democracy party.”
In an essay posted online, the freshman congressman said that if the Democrats are successful at ousting him, “Republican voters will be blamed” but that ultimately, “there is no doubt Democrats’ fingerprints will be on the weapon.”
“Don’t keep coming to me, asking where are all the good Republicans that defend democracy, and then take your donors’ money and spend half a million dollars promoting one of the worst election deniers that’s out there,” Kinzinger said. “If Peter’s opponent wins, the Democrats own that.”
And it’s not only Republicans who have called out the DCCC for trying to boost extreme GOP candidates. A number of congressional Democrats have also publicly criticized the move, calling the use of campaign funds to help election deniers “unconscionable” and an “egregious misuse of Democratic resources.”
Michael Berkman, director of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy at Penn State, said these strategies, when used in races like Meijer’s, won’t have major impacts on American democracy, given that a single Republican legislator who breaks from their party will likely be marginalized.
But when these tactics are being applied to gubernatorial and Senate elections, like in Pennsylvania’s governor’s race, where Democrat Josh Shapiro dropped $840,000 on ads drawing attention to his GOP rival Doug Mastriano, Berkman said it becomes more problematic if the move backfires.
“If you miscalculate and you get a very extreme Republican governor, it can be extremely destructive to democracy at the state level,” Lieberman agreed. “There are states, like Wisconsin or Michigan, where Democratic governors are the last stand against the very extreme electoral manipulation that Republicans in the state legislatures are trying to pass.”
Lieberman said it would be “fatuous” for Democrats to deflect accusations that they are helping far-right election deniers and argue that they’re merely highlighting the platforms on which those candidates are running.
“For the Democrats to hide behind this, and say they’re not helping these extreme candidates, I think is transparently nonsensical,” he said.
Newsweek has reached out to the DCCC for comment.