Democrats tell us that former President Donald Trump and his followers, “MAGA Republicans,” are a threat to our democracy. But they’re helping, or at least trying to help, some of Trump’s strongest supporters win Republican primaries for Congress or state governorships. So what gives?
Journalists covering this summer’s primaries to produce candidates for the fall midterm elections have noted that in several instances Democratic politicians have spent large sums of money to help nominate Republicans who continue to enthusiastically support former President Trump. For example, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, “In Illinois alone, the Democratic Governors Association and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent at least $30 million to attack a Trumpist’s moderate gubernatorial opponent. In Pennsylvania, a Democratic campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads intended to help a Trumpist candidate win the G.O.P. gubernatorial primary. A political action committee affiliated with Nancy Pelosi worked to boost far-right Republican House candidates in California and Colorado.” The reason, says Brooks, is, “because they think far-right Trumpist candidates will be easier to beat in the general elections than more moderate candidates.”
The Democrats have a point. Voters in general elections for senator, governor, and president prefer political moderates over extremists, at least in constituencies where Republicans and Democrats are roughly balanced. A moderately liberal Democrat will usually defeat a right-wing radical Republican, while a moderately conservative Republican will usually defeat a left-wing radical Democrat. Therefore, a common strategy is for each candidate to try to portray his opponent as too extreme and out of step with the electorate. Whoever’s more successful with tarring his opponent as an extremist wins.
The Democrats’ current strategy to get GOP voters to nominate candidates whom the Democrats can then portray as extremists is first known to have been developed by former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri in 2012. Knowing that Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than those who vote in general elections, and facing a tough re-election campaign, her team spent $2 million dollars in the primaries advertising the conservative credentials of the man she thought she could most easily beat in the general election, GOP congressman Todd Akin, whom McCaskill believed was the most extreme, and therefore the weakest, Republican seeking his party’s senatorial nomination. Her advertising led GOP voters to nominate Akin, who promptly showed himself to be a far-right crackpot and thereby threw away his chances of defeating her by asserting that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant through rape. In short, McCaskill manipulated Republican voters into nominating a right-wing radical, whom general election voters rejected in her favor.
The latest successful use of this tactic came last Tuesday in Michigan’s primary when Congressman Peter Meijer was defeated for renomination by Trump loyalist John Gibbs. Meijer had been one of the handful of Republican congressmen who voted with House Democrats to impeach Trump for his conduct on 1/6/21. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rewarded Meijer by spending $400,000 advertising Gibbs’ support for Trump. By tying Gibbs to Trump, the Democrats were successfully able to convince Michigan Republicans to replace Meijer with him.
Critics of the Democrats’ efforts to help MAGA Republicans win primaries say the Democrats are being dishonest and critical—How can Democrats simultaneously claim MAGA Republicans are unfit to govern while still helping them win Republican nominations for office?
Democrats aiding Republicans reply that the tactic is justified to retain Democratic control of Congress and state governments. As Brooks said above, the Democrats think MAGA Republicans are more likely to be defeated than moderate conservatives. So Democratic activists either run ads attacking moderate conservatives to make their defeat in primaries more likely, or they run ads ostensibly attacking MAGA Republicans for their loyalty to Trump, which actually makes the MAGA Republican candidates seem more attractive to GOP primary voters.
But the tactic could backfire. If 2022 proves to be as good a year for Republicans as analysts currently believe it to be, some of these MAGA Republicans could, contrary to Democratic expectations, actually be elected to office after all in a great red wave of inflation-fueled revulsion against the Democrats. So what happens if former President Trump secures the 2024 GOP presidential nomination and uses MAGA Republican officeholders, some elected after Democratic help in the primaries, to challenge an unfavorable election outcome? What if, for example, the MAGA Republican nominated, with Democratic help, for Governor of Pennsylvania, actually wins his election and uses his power to promote a pro-Trump slate of electors even if the Democratic presidential nominee appears to carry the state? Under the circumstances, the Democrats will have to share with the Republicans at least some of the blame for whatever mischief follows.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.