The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The history of primary meddling — and how risky Dems’ attempts in 2022 are

Arizona Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake at a rally at The Maverick in Tucson last month. (Rebecca Noble/Reuters)

The Democratic Party is undertaking some wholly understandable and worthwhile soul-searching when it comes to its growing efforts to meddle in Republican primaries.

Democrats are in one breath arguing that Trump-supporting election deniers are extremely dangerous to democracy — and in the next breath, trying to get them on the November ballot. The idea is to get weaker opponents in the general election; the practical effect could be helping these supposedly very dangerous Republicans win powerful offices if things don’t go exactly according to plan.

In two of the most high-stakes races, Democrats helped Doug Mastriano win the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial primary, and now they’re attempting to do the same with Kari Lake in Arizona’s Aug. 2 primary. Both have been among the most extreme supporters of Donald Trump’s bogus voter-fraud claims, but polls also show both would have a real shot of winning office — given that these are swing states and 2022 is looking like a good GOP year. Wave elections, should this turn out to be one, have a way of pushing extremists into office.

In recent weeks, a bevy of headlines have talked about how the Democrats’ ploy is “risky” and how they’re “playing with fire.” Some have even wagered that this strategy has “backfired” enough that it should give the party pause.

There’s no question that this could go sideways. And there’s no question it undercuts Democrats’ argument that these candidates are truly dangerous. But as for how much it has backfired in the past, that’s less clear. Let’s review some of the history.

Before we jump into it, we should note that all meddling is not created equal. Generally speaking, “meddling” is understood to mean a party inserting itself in the other party’s primary. Sometimes, this merely takes the shape of standard-issue attacks on the likely nominee — the kind of ads you’d expect to see in a general election, just earlier. For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll focus more on the more underhanded and risky version: trying to elevate a more extreme, presumably less broadly appealing, candidate.

That’s what Democrats have done, not just with Mastriano and Lake, but also with the GOP nominee for Illinois governor, Darren Bailey, who won his primary last month after Democrats spent a staggering $35 million to help him. A similar effort will be on the ballot Tuesday in Maryland, where Democrats have elevated pro-Trump Dan Cox over the more-moderate Kelly Schulz. Democrats failed to push through more extreme candidates in the races for Senate and governor in Colorado, and in a key House race in California.

The effort to elevate Lake is thus far significantly less robust than any of the others, with the state Democratic Party issuing a press release last week that was critical of Lake’s opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson. But the party as a whole has not launched paid advertising. We’ll see if it does anything else in the primary, where Lake has polled as a narrow favorite but Taylor Robson appears ascendant.

Perhaps the most storied example of this strategy paying off came in the 2012 Senate race in Missouri. Back then, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and her fellow Democrats successfully helped Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) win the GOP nomination by “attacking” him for being too conservative — one of the most familiar tactics. They then trounced him by 16 points in the general election after he quickly registered his “legitimate rape” gaffe. Democrats also successfully attacked more electable candidates in the Senate primaries for Nevada in 2010 and Indiana in 2012, before defeating the eventual tea party nominees in the general election.

In each case, the play was indeed risky. Both Missouri and Indiana were red states, and Nevada was a swing state, meaning the candidates they elevated could have won in November. But they didn’t.

More often than not, attempts to elevate more extreme candidates do fail — but they do so long before the general election. The more extreme candidates simply fail to win the primary. That was the case in the 2009 New Jersey governor’s race (featuring Chris Christie’s opponent, Steve Lonegan), the 2014 North Carolina Senate race (now-Sen. Thom Tillis’s opponent), the 2014 Colorado governor’s race (Tom Tancredo), the 2014 Alaska Senate race (now-Sen. Dan Sullivan’s opponents) and the 2020 Kansas Senate race (Kris Kobach), among others. Republicans in 2020 even tried their hand in elevating someone viewed as a more beatable opponent for Tillis.

As for candidates like Mastriano and Lake ultimately actually winning? Precedent for that is more difficult to find.

In a recent piece, the Washington Examiner offered one example — from the California governor’s race, all the way back in 1966. It was a big one, in that it paved the way for a novice politician by the name of Ronald Reagan. But that was a more subtle form of meddling, in the form of digging up dirt on Reagan’s primary opponent.

Another example others often invoke is another GOP icon whose name you might have heard: Trump. But again, that “meddling” wasn’t really like what we’ve been talking about in 2022. It’s true that Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 viewed Trump and other more extreme GOP hopefuls as more beatable “Pied Piper” candidates whom they wanted to elevate. But that posture wasn’t nearly as overt, and was viewed more as a ploy to draw the other candidates to the right. (It also seems pretty unlikely that anything the Clinton campaign did would have truly mattered, given the size of Trump’s win.)

All of which brings us to the “but.” Yes, we’ve yet to see such meddling result in Govs. Mastriano or Lake. When the strategy was most dicey — in Missouri, Indiana and Nevada a decade ago — it panned out quite nicely for Democrats. But the sample size is small because the extreme candidates often don’t make it past the primary.

We also live in an age in which voters are more polarized. It seems pretty unlikely that a Todd Akin would be stuck at 39 percent of the vote in Missouri in 2022, even after “legitimate rape.” Arizona and Pennsylvania today aren’t red like Missouri and Indiana were back then, but they are highly competitive. The most recent polling shows Lake neck-and-neck with Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), and Mastriano with the margin of error with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D).

Perhaps that changes once swing voters become more familiar with Mastriano and Lake — and Republicans clearly worry about both of them for good reason — but for now, it’s not that difficult to see this blowing up in Democrats’ faces. It’s surely on the table.

And Pennsylvania and Arizona being swing states rather than red states in a way makes this even dicier. And it’s because of precisely the same thing that Democrats say candidates like Mastriano and Lake are so dangerous: the fact that they’re election deniers. Republicans in positions of power in such swing states generally stood up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, but both Mastriano and Lake have assured voters they would’ve handled things quite differently.

We’re a few steps away from that actually coming into play, but imagine if it ever came to pass. Then we’d really see some soul-searching.

This post has been updated.