The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats took an unconscionable gamble — and it worked

Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) at an election night event in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Tuesday. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

During the Republican primary season, Democrats took a big risk: They boosted Trumpist, election-denying candidates over their more moderate opponents. From the perspective of a coldly calculating Democratic strategist, this might have looked like a safe bet. These further-right candidates tended to be inexperienced and undisciplined, and their close association with former president Donald Trump’s various outrages would make them easier to beat outside of the Republican base.

But politics can’t all be reckless cynicism — that’s how you get Trump. As I and other critics pointed out at the time, screaming that Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy falls rather flat if you’re also helping Trumpist candidates get closer to positions of power, where they might be able to subvert our electoral processes.

Democrats were not taking the ordinary political risk of installing a bad candidate or two; they were wagering our country’s future to marginally improve their own electoral chances. It was a feckless and unconscionable gamble.

I am therefore quite distressed to report that, at least at the level of cold political calculation, it seems to have worked.

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During the primaries, Democrats spent tens of millions assisting Trumpist fringe candidates in at least 13 races. Seven of those efforts failed, but six succeeded. With Democratic assistance, MAGA candidates won the Republican gubernatorial primaries in Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In New Hampshire, Robert Burns got Democratic help to win the GOP primary in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc was aided in securing the state’s senatorial nomination. Most notably, in Michigan’s 3rd District, Democrats helped knock out incumbent Republican Peter Meijer, one of only 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Democrats rewarded Meijer’s courage by dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads boosting an election-denying rival named John Gibbs — more money than the Gibbs campaign spent itself.

There were also some non-financial shenanigans. In Arizona, former television anchor Kari Lake, who lit up the Republican debate by insisting that she would not have certified Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, defeated more moderate rival Karrin Taylor Robson, after Democrats sent out an email thanking Robson for her past support of Democrats. Was this decisive? Maybe not. Lake ended up winning her primary by almost five points, and it’s hard to say one email made all the difference. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

As of this writing, none of the Republican candidates whom Democrats helped in the primary have won their general election.

In fairness, it’s not all that likely that Republicans would have carried deep-blue Illinois or Maryland, no matter who the candidate was. But Pennsylvania’s governorship was potentially winnable — and “Trumpier than Trump” Doug Mastriano lost it by a wide margin. Bolduc and Burns have gone down to defeat in New Hampshire. And Hillary Scholten successfully defeated Gibbs to flip Meijer’s seat to the Democrats. The only candidate left to watch is Lake — the one of this cohort who has long been rated with the best chance but also the one who got the least amount of help.

Still, even if the only winner is Lake, she will illustrate the dangers of this strategy — a strategy that, given Tuesday’s success, Democrats will undoubtedly be tempted to repeat in 2024.

Sure, the cynical move paid off in a bunch of races and might have had knock-on effects down the ticket by discouraging moderate Republican voters — early Wednesday morning, Republican control of the Pennsylvania state house was imperiled. But there are two grave dangers in this kind of cynicism.

The first is that the cynicism will stop being a political tool, a necessary concession to human realities, and start being the primary modus operandi of campaigns that no longer have any real principles except “Give me power.” But the second is that pure cynicism will, ironically, not be quite cynical enough.

The Democrats who performed these maneuvers were themselves willing to do anything to win, yet nonetheless counted on the electorate to do the right thing and save us all from the potentially disastrous consequences of their actions. I’m happy to report that, at least in most cases, the electorate stepped up to the job. But at the same time, it looks as though the cynics might have underestimated Lake — who is not just an election denier but a mediagenic and seasoned former television anchor, adept at staging snappy social media stunts. She now looks likely to win Arizona’s governorship.

The cynics seem to have assumed — rather naively — that Lake’s election denial would matter more than her political skills. Perhaps this assumption will prove correct, in defiance of polls that recently showed Lake consistently leading Democratic rival Katie Hobbs. But then again, perhaps not. And how many more such gambles can Democrats take before this game of electoral Russian roulette ends in a disaster?

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.