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Think First, Democrats, Before Helping Extreme Republicans

Why are Democrats boosting an extremist candidate challenging incumbent Republican US Representative Peter Meijer in a Michigan primary election?

The Democrats have been using the same strategy in primary after primary. “Criticize” a fringe-y candidate for being “too conservative” in advertising intended to help that candidate with Republican primary voters — the ones who love to find the most conservative candidate.

While a lot of people have slammed the strategy for the possibility that it will lead to electing the very extremists whom Democrats deplore, there’s a legitimate case to be made for it in some instances. Democrats aren’t responsible for creating the problem of Republican voters who cast ballots for terrible general-election candidates. Nor are they responsible for candidates willing to embrace unpopular policy positions in order to win primaries by appealing to those voters.

Moreover, far too many mainstream Republicans have either adopted fringe and anti-democratic views, or have been unwilling to stand up to those in the party who have such preferences. In the US, with a two-party system, both parties are going to have their occasional embarrassments, but the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against accepting legitimate electoral votes cast in the 2020 presidential election, even after the US Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021 had delayed the proceedings.

In that atmosphere, there’s a good argument that any Republican congressional majority would be dangerous to democracy (in addition to, from the Democrats’ perspective, making poor policy choices), and what really matters is preventing Republicans from achieving that majority — and so risking the election of a few extra extremists is a reasonable trade-off for reducing the chances of Republicans winning more seats.

But the wisdom of pursuing that strategy in any particular case has to depend on context. The Michigan contest involves a House seat, not the Senate. The Senate is a toss-up, and there are only a handful of competitive seats to begin with. What’s more, the difference between 49 and 50 Democratic senators is the difference between confirming executive branch nominees and judges or not.

But the House … well, it may not be impossible for Democrats to hold their majority in that chamber, but the odds are surely low. The FiveThirtyEight model gives Republicans an 85% chance of winning a majority, and it would be historically remarkable for Democrats to avoid losing seats in a midterm election taking place with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House.

And while Democrats can argue that the difference between a fringe Republican and a mainstream conservative isn’t that big a deal when it comes to protecting democracy, that isn’t accurate in the Michigan case. Meijer is one of the 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump after the attack on the Capitol. Democrats could note that Meijer voted with his party on other votes they consider important to democracy, but his vote to impeach a fellow Republican should count as a big deal.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats shouldn’t contest the seat, which is in a western Michigan district where Democrats seem to be strong, and is therefore one of a small number of pickup opportunities for the party. Of course they should.

But the case for trying to take Meijer out in a primary by helping him to lose to an extremist is a lot weaker. Incentives matter in politics, and if Democrats treat those who stood up for democracy when it mattered the same way they treat those who didn’t, what kinds of incentives will that create? The more that those who stood up to Trump lose in primaries, the more Republican party actors will believe in Trump’s influence, which in turn will make him that much more influential within the party.

The spending against Meijer is coming from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the formal party body in Washington that works on House elections, not from a Democratic candidate running for the seat. The campaign committee’s job is to win elections for Democrats, not to save democracy or establish healthy incentives within the Republican Party. But there are limits to what parties and candidates should do to win, and in this and similar primaries, it’s hard to defend what Democrats are up to.

It’s not actually clear that these kinds of campaigns make any difference; experts believe that Meijer was in trouble even without Democratic assistance, and baroque political gambits regularly get more attention than they deserve. Voters are probably less vulnerable to other-party influence than they are to normal campaign messages, and if there’s one thing we can rely on, it’s political pundits focusing more on clever ads and fancy campaign strategies than on basic fundamentals of elections.

It’s also worth remembering that some Democrats were crossover voters for anti-Trump incumbents in Georgia, and the same thing appears to be happening in Wyoming for Representative Liz Cheney, the most prominent anti-Trump Republican in the House (although given how few Democratic voters there are to begin with in that state, it’s not apt to be enough to save her). But what Democrats are doing in the Michigan House race appears to be a low-reward, high-risk plan, and one that may have unfortunate effects.

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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