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Boosting Extremists Is a Dangerous Game

KIRKWOOD, MO - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) address the press on September 24, 2012 in Kirkwood, Missouri. Gingrich was in the St. Louis area to attend a fundraiser for Akin’s U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)
KIRKWOOD, MO - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) address the press on September 24, 2012 in Kirkwood, Missouri. Gingrich was in the St. Louis area to attend a fundraiser for Akin’s U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images) (Photographer: Whitney Curtis/Getty Images North America)
Comment

In a series of primaries this year, Democrats appear to be trying to Todd Akin the Republicans. Todd Akin? He was the very conservative candidate for a Senate seat in Missouri back in 2012, who Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill boosted in the Republican primary by running ads bashing him for being too conservative. The strategy was simple: Republican voters would reflexively support anyone who was being called a conservative extremist, but then that candidate would be easier to beat in the general election. Democrats have been using a version of that strategy this year in contests including a Senate primary in Colorado and primaries for governor in Illinois, Nevada and Pennsylvania. So what can we say about it?For one thing, be careful about buying the hype. Yes, ads can move votes in primaries — much more easily than in general elections. But this is exactly the kind of thing that pundits tend to overemphasize in interpreting elections. Campaign professionals behind this kind of ad may give wink-wink denials to reporters on the record while falling over each other off the record to claim credit for their cleverness and skill, and one of the things that election analysts and pundits in general tend to respect is cleverness. That’s not to say that this stuff never has real effects. But be cautious.

For another, note that this is all at the level of party operatives. At the voter level, things can work differently. In Georgia’s recent primaries, for example, Democratic voters who supported Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger apparently did so because they thought those Republicans would be better if elected than their Donald Trump-supporting opponents, not as a plot to elect Democrats to those offices.That said, as long as the campaign is honest — that is, as long as the candidates accused of being extremely conservative are in fact extremely conservative — I don’t think there’s anything unethical going on here. What Democrats are attempting to do is to exploit the preference for extremism among Republicans that in other ways can be very damaging to Democrats. That’s ethically kosher.Whether it’s wise or not is a different question. After all, if the presumably weak general-election candidates wind up winning, then the strategy will have backfired. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar asks, “After all, how seriously does the party take its own argument that American democracy itself is threatened by Republicans when they’re boosting some of the most radical conspiracists and election-deniers for naked political gain?”

That’s a fair question. But it cuts both ways. After all, the reason Democrats and many others believe that democracy is in danger isn’t because the entire Republican Party is made up of fringe authoritarians. It’s because the bulk of the party isn’t willing to take on the fringe, and therefore Republican majorities in Congress and in statehouses are, given where we are, a threat to democracy. Even if the people elected are more like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and less like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn. If that’s correct, then it’s hard to blame Democrats for either hoping that the less-bad Republican gets nominated or hoping that the less-electable Republican gets nominated; the real blame (as Kraushaar says) is with the party “whose electorate is increasingly drawn to extremes and whose leaders are too risk-averse” to do anything about it.Kraushaar is talking about formal Republican party organizations opting against involvement in nomination contests. The larger problem, however, is that too many party actors — especially in Republican-aligned media — egg on Republican voters to move farther and farther into the fringe. They will falsely claim, for example, that many or even most Republican politicians are sell-out RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). In the real world, party polarization at the politician level is very strong, the least conservative Republicans in Congress are more conservative than the least liberal Democrats, and the main reason that conservatives don’t always get their way is that the US system has a strong status-quo bias that’s hard to beat. Oh, and because Republicans have rarely won enough elections to have a unified government. Not because Republican politicians are constantly betraying them. And that’s exactly why Democratic campaign operatives think that if they can establish that (say) a patch of moss is the most extreme conservative in a Republican primary then that patch of moss is going to get a lot of votes. And as long as that’s the case, Democrats are only going to have difficult choices — and democracy could well be at risk.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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