The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic meddling in GOP primaries prompts concern over elevating election deniers

A Republican primary debate for Nevada governor in Las Vegas last month. (John Locher/AP)
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Joey Gilbert has said he has “not a single regret” about being in Washington during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a mob supporting President Donald Trump and does not accept that Trump lost the 2020 election.

Ron Hanks was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and described the attack as a “peaceful rally.” He is campaigning for an office in the building as a senator representing Colorado.

And Darren Bailey said in December 2020 it was “appalling” that GOP leaders in his home state of Illinois wanted Trump to concede the election. He’s vying to become the state’s governor.

Victories by Mastriano, Budd show potency of Trump’s false stolen election claims in GOP

All three have something else in common: They’re benefiting, either directly or indirectly, from a cluster of Democratic-associated groups spending millions of dollars in contested Republican primaries this month. In some cases these groups are attacking more mainstream Republicans and in others they are amplifying messages from the election-denying candidates.

The apparent bet these organizations are placing is that such far-right candidates, who hold polarizing views on various issues, would be easier to defeat in the November midterms when a broader slice of the electorate will be casting ballots. But some Democrats warn that this is a precarious strategy in a year when the party is facing stiff head winds — one that could result in the election of Republicans promoting false claims who could use powerful posts to disrupt future votes.

“I think it’s very dangerous and potentially very risky to elevate people who are hostile to democracy,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who has helped helm former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s political spending. “Either this is a crisis moment or it isn’t. And if it is — which it is — you don’t play cute in a crisis.”

The strategy will face its latest test on Tuesday in Nevada, one of several states holding primaries. A crowded field is vying for the Republican nomination for governor there, including Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is backed by Trump and is seen by many as the front-runner on the GOP side. Lombardo has faced attacks from a Democratic-affiliated organization called “A Stronger NV.”

Gilbert, who is supported by the Nevada Republican Party, is seen by many as Lombardo’s top rival. Gilbert has openly touted his presence in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, where was captured on video just outside the Capitol building, and has baselessly questioned whether President Biden truly won his state in 2020.

One TV ad from A Stronger NV labeled Lombardo as “slick Joe” and accuses him of being soft on crime by disbanding an anti-gang unit during his tenure as sheriff — attacks that could alienate him from staunchly conservative voters who frequently participate in GOP primaries.

The organization was formed to “make independent expenditures in support of Democratic candidates for governor against Republican candidates for governor,” according to paperwork filed with the Nevada secretary of state. The group also listed a phone number for the Democratic Governors Association on its filing. The Nevada Independent first reported the group’s activities.

Some Democrats defending the use of such tactics across the country have said the mismatch between what primary voters and the broader universe of general-election voters tend to want is fair game for manipulation. Others have said they are simply trying to get a jump on drawing general-election contrasts.

“The DGA is wasting no time in educating the public about these Republicans,” said DGA spokesman David Turner in a statement. “These elected and formerly elected officials want to deceptively retell their histories, and we’re just filling in the gaps.”

Commercials from groups interfering in Republican primaries sometimes say that a GOP candidate is “too conservative” for the state — a potentially flattering label in the context of a Republican primary. Some highlight the talking points the candidates are pushing, including their records opposing abortion rights and protecting Second Amendment rights.

President Biden has repeatedly warned about such candidates, labeling their ideology as “ultra MAGA,” a phrase that the far right immediately seized upon as a compliment. Democratic support for candidates pushing that ideology, even if it’s intended to ease the way in November, strikes many in the party as a perilous wager — especially considering recent history.

Some key aides in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign wanted to face Trump, calculating incorrectly that he would be a weak general-election opponent if nominated.

“It’s quite interesting that Democrats are bolstering the same candidates they’re calling dangerous,” said Jon Seaton, who managed Republican businessman John Brunner’s 2012 Senate campaign in Missouri. “In this environment, with inflation being what it is, and the kind of tail winds that we have, Democrats should be very, very, very careful what they wish for. Maybe they don’t care.”

Brunner lost in the 2012 GOP primary after Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was on the ballot that year, worked to promote his far-right GOP competitor, Todd Akin, who outraged many voters when he said that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. McCaskill went on to defeat Akin.

One of McCaskill’s aides on that campaign also warned that Democrats might be taking on too much risk with a similar approach this year. “It is always a measure of last resort,” said the former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss how the party is using this tactic.

Even as Democratic candidates warn of the dangers posed by Republicans aligned with Trump’s election falsehoods, outside groups operating in the same races are quietly trying to boost candidates fitting that description in GOP primaries.

“Anti-democratic forces are stronger than any time since Jim Crow. And it’s true. That’s a fact,” Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) said during a speech on the Senate floor as he voiced support for a Democratic effort to expand voting rights.

But a group called Democratic Colorado is promoting Hanks ahead of the June 28 GOP primary for U.S. Senate, spending at least $2 million, according to data provided by a person familiar with the spending who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss non-public estimates.

One ad running on TV says that Hanks is too conservative for the state, highlighting his record on border security, gun rights and opposing abortion.

Alvina Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado and a longtime local Democratic strategist, described the spending as part of the general-election campaign, even though the primary is this month.

“The GOP has been seized by MAGA extremists,” she said in a statement. “We believe both Republican Senate candidates are totally out of step with Colorado values, and voters deserve to know the danger they present ahead of November.”

Hanks’s initial TV ad shows him firing a high-powered long gun at a voting machine. Aides to Bennet’s Senate office and his campaign declined to comment for this story.

During a virtual campaign event Thursday night, as the first public hearing of the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack convened in Washington, Hanks offered his own false and distorted version of the event, calling it “a million peaceful, concerned Americans, patriotic Americans concerned about their country.” Hanks added: “The mainstream media’s effort to label this as, you know, a massive insurrection is fundamentally untrue.”

Hanks’s state office did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Hanks has said that he attended Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House and also walked to the Capitol. In a local interview, he baselessly claimed that the violence that day was part of a “false flag operation.”

Hanks has also said he traveled from Colorado to Arizona twice to help out with audits after the 2020 election.

A similar situation is unfolding in the Illinois gubernatorial race, where the DGA aired TV spots in late March attacking the then-GOP front-runner Richard Irvin as soft on crime over his time as a defense attorney.

The DGA has also run ads highlighting the far-right record of Irvin’s competitor, state Sen. Darren Bailey. The ad says Bailey’s agenda is “too conservative for Illinois,” and ticks through his support for the Second Amendment. It shows footage of him carrying a long gun and of a newborn baby as a narrator seeks to assure viewers that Bailey would ban abortions. “Bailey proudly embraces the Trump agenda, calling into question our elections,” the ad says.

Bailey made his name in conservative circles by challenging the state’s coronavirus restrictions and has repeatedly raised questions about the validity of the 2020 election.

On Jan. 7, 2021, Bailey posted a video on his Facebook page saying “we have no idea of knowing” the motives of those who stormed the Capitol. “Where they stand or who they are — we don’t know,” Bailey said. He added: “Our nation is under assault, and God will rescue us.” On Jan. 12, he posted on social media that the Republican Party should “stand up for our Republican President.”

In May, Bailey appeared as “a special guest” at a fundraiser for an Illinois congressional candidate that was headlined by Rudy Giuliani, who helped spearhead Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Bailey’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Bailey was asked about the ads in a recent local radio interview. “Both parties are completely out of touch with their base and they’re out of touch with people,” Bailey said.

In Pennsylvania, a key November battleground, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro did not have a primary challenger and ran $1.2 million in TV ads toward the end of the primary campaign that ticked through Republican Doug Mastriano’s conservative credentials, according to Pennsylvania campaign finance reports. That’s more than the roughly $800,000 that Mastriano spent in all of 2022 on his primary campaign, according to the reports.

“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” the narrator says in a 30-second ad.

Mastriano rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 2020 election by falsely claiming Trump won the state. He participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, helped commission an unauthorized audit of voting machines in a rural county and urged fellow state lawmakers to throw out the election results.

Shapiro has denied that his intention was to boost Mastriano’s standing, but the TV ads echoed Mastriano’s messaging in the primary. In a statement to The Post, Shapiro spokesman Manual Bonder said, “For weeks before the primary election, both public and private polling indicated that Doug Mastriano was poised to become the Republican nominee, and those predictions were confirmed on primary night.”

The ads ran during the primary and have not run during the general-election phase of the race.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this story reported that Democratic Colorado was responsible for a mailer attacking a Republican candidate. The group said it was not behind the mailer.

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