The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why criticism of Democrats for boosting radical Trumpists is wrong

Rep. Peter Meijer, right, congratulates his opponent, John Gibbs, after Gibbs won the Republican nomination for Meijer's Michigan congressional seeat on Aug 2. (Joel Bissell/The Grand Rapids Press/AP)
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When moderate Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan was defeated in Tuesday’s primary, condemnation came swiftly. Not for John Gibbs, the far-right election conspiracist who narrowly beat Meijer, but for Democratic Party officials who boosted Gibbs’s campaign in an attempt to face a general election opponent who would be easier to beat in a district that leans slightly Democratic.

Gibbs is one of a number of such candidates Democrats have tried to help, and the response has been widespread outrage. Outside of the Democratic officials who made the decision to deploy this tactic, there seems to be a nearly universal consensus that what they have done is reckless and hypocritical.

But while I wouldn’t unequivocally endorse parties trying to get their opponents to nominate the looniest candidates possible, there are a number of reasons why the criticism is overblown and even misguided. In fact, we might look back and say that Democrats made a strategic judgment that struck a reasonable balance between risk and reward.

This is a minority opinion, to say the least. When Meijer was defeated, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), one of two Republicans on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee should “be ashamed” for airing ads that somewhat gently called Gibbs “too conservative for west Michigan” and highlighted his ties to former president Donald Trump.

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Many Democrats agree. “No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.). Rep. Ritchie Torres (N.Y.) called it “embarrassingly hypocritical.” The tactic has been widely condemned in the media, including by the editorial boards of The Post and the New York Times.

But it’s worth making some distinctions here. Some extremist Republicans have been boosted by Democrats in governors’ races, including in Maryland, Illinois and, more importantly, Pennsylvania. That’s where Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro aired ads criticizing eventual nominee Doug Mastriano during the primary campaign that many saw as an attempt to lift Mastriano over his opponents. You can argue the risk is too great: As governor, Mastriano could put his extremist views into practice and potentially attempt to throw the 2024 election for Trump.

But when it comes to the House of Representatives and a member such as Meijer, the calculation is very different.

First, note that one of the first things Meijer did after his defeat was to appear at a “unity” event with Gibbs. Whatever Meijer’s distaste for Gibbs’s repugnant views, he’s backing Gibbs in the general election, so spare me the laments for the departure of such a noble public servant.

Second, we can’t escape this fact: Gibbs was exactly what Republican primary voters in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District wanted. This race got plenty of attention, and Gibbs was not hiding who he is. That’s what they chose, just as Republican voters have in state after state. On the same day, Republicans in another swing state, Arizona, nominated an entire slate of election saboteurs; their nominee for secretary of state is an actual member of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing extremist group.

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All of which is why GOP extremism is rapidly becoming the central issue of the 2022 midterm campaign, which is very good for Democrats. It motivates their own base to turn out, and pushes moderate Republicans away from GOP candidates. If Democrats win in November, it won’t be because they talked about “kitchen table issues.” It will be because voters recoiled at what Republicans want to do, not only about elections but also on issues such as abortion.

What’s more, Democrats have only meddled in a few House races. So what are the possible outcomes? The best-case scenario is that they snag a couple of seats they otherwise wouldn’t have, enabling them to hold the House majority. Were that to happen, and were they to hold on to the Senate as well (which looks much more likely than keeping the House), the effects would be extraordinary.

It would mean they could continue passing legislation for the next two years, with a profound impact on Americans’ lives. None of it will be easy, but there could be bills fighting climate change, expanding access to health care, raising the minimum wage, securing abortion rights, and much more.

The worst-case scenario is that Democrats lose a few seats they would probably have lost anyway, but instead of being occupied by Republicans who stand with the GOP against that entire progressive agenda, they’d be occupied by Republicans who stand with the GOP against the entire progressive agenda and are also election conspiracists.

In other words, a few more members like Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), buffoons who spend their time spouting lunacy on far-right podcasts and trolling the libs on Twitter.

A few more members like them would be disturbing, but it’s not the thing we need to fear most. What we need to fear right now is Republican power. The attack on democracy isn’t just coming from the looniest corners, it’s from the party’s leadership and its supposed moderates who have been unwilling and unable to reverse its embrace of authoritarianism.

In the end, Democrats’ attempts to choose their opponents will probably make only the tiniest difference one way or the other. But it almost certainly won’t make the Republican Party any more of a threat to our system than it already is. And if it gives Democrats a better chance of holding the House, they’ll be able to make a pretty good case that it was worth it.