The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats can’t have it both ways about the threat of GOP extremism

Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for governor, speaks in Chambersburg, Pa., on May 17. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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In two dramatic hearings — so far — the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has painted a devastating picture of the comprehensive assault Donald Trump has waged on this country’s political system before, during and after the 2020 election. To this day, Trump makes his false claim of electoral fraud a litmus test of loyalty within the Republican Party, casting a threatening shadow over our elections and institutions.

So why are Democrats and their associated dark-money groups meanwhile spending millions to boost the campaigns of election-denying extremist Republicans in contested primaries?

They include candidates for House, Senate and governor, and some took part in Trump’s “stop the steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, though not necessarily in the riot that immediately followed. In Pennsylvania, state legislator Doug Mastriano, a Jan. 6 rally participant, has already won the GOP nomination for governor with an ad boost paid for out of the campaign treasury of the Democratic nominee, state attorney general Josh Shapiro.

The Machiavellian rationale for this little stratagem, documented in Tuesday’s Post by reporter Annie Linskey, is that, come November, Democrats stand a better chance of winning against “ultra MAGA” extremists.

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This should stop. The hypocrisy is painfully obvious: How can Democrats portray Trumpism as a danger to democracy while backing its proponents’ campaigns?

Worse than unprincipled, the strategy is reckless. The premise is that Democrats face a tough midterm political environment but their chances improve against low-quality — i.e., extreme and inexperienced — Republican opponents. Ergo, in Colorado, pro-Democratic groups are spending $2 million in support of Ron Hanks, a Jan. 6 rally participant, who is running against businessman Joe O’Dea, a more mainstream figure who would be harder for Sen. Michael F. Bennet to beat — to cite one example from Linskey’s article.

The historical precedent is the 2012 Senate race in Missouri. Then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) openly backed an unelectable right-winger, Todd Akin, for the GOP nomination to run against her. It worked: He beat his Republican opponents and then she beat him.

The risk, of course, is that this is not a relatively ordinary political year — like 2012 — but one in which a true wave election sweeps all of a party’s candidates into office, regardless of their individual attributes. And, with President Biden’s job approval rating below 40 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, 2022 looks like a Republican tsunami. Election analyst Sean Trende recently told the Lobby Shop podcast his models suggest the GOP could emerge with 54 seats in the Senate and, conceivably, 250-odd seats in the House.

Waves extend down ballot, into state legislatures and other offices, such as secretary of state, with possible consequences for the election machinery of the 2024 presidential election.

Yes, 2024 is a long way away; the election could produce an outcome so decisive that the machinations of Trumpist officials make no practical difference. Also, the civic behavior of Trump-friendly officials may surprise on the upside, as was the case with Trump-endorsed Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz, who rebuffed Trump’s urgings to preemptively claim victory in a razor-close primary and waited until a recount confirmed his win.

None of this would be happening if the GOP were not so corrupted by Trumpism in the first place, as political analyst Josh Kraushaar of National Journal has noted. Indeed, Democrats can rationalize meddling in GOP primaries by arguing that there are no true moderates in a party “seized by MAGA extremists,” as one Colorado Democratic official told Linskey.

This undercuts a competing Democratic narrative — symbolized by the House committee’s inclusion of GOP dissidents Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — that there’s a battle for the soul of the Republican Party and Democrats stand with the good guys.

The bottom line: Democrats cannot control the future, but they can at least keep their principles and practices in sync — and their hands clean.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” by contrast, is the perennial mind-set of unholy alliance-makers throughout history. It was certainly prevalent in Weimar Germany, to which contemporary America bears too many similarities for comfort.

In that time, the Communist Party of Germany claimed their competitors on the moderate left, the Social Democrats, were Nazi-equivalent “social fascists” and relentlessly fought them; in fact, Communists often did so in collaboration with the National Socialists. Once the Social Democrats were out of the way, the Communists asserted, they would turn on the Nazis and defeat them, one on one. We all know how that worked out.

It’s a deliberately overdrawn analogy. Democrats are not Communists; moderate Republicans are certainly no social democrats; nor, for that matter, are Trumpists Nazis.

The point, though, is that there is more to history than the 2012 Missouri Senate race, and it’s full of warnings for those who would play the too-clever-by-half games some Democrats are playing now.