See the ads Democrats are funding to boost far-right Republicans

There’s a growing reckoning in the Democratic Party over a strategy that isn’t entirely new but is rather risky and at least somewhat unseemly: spending money in Republican primaries to try to nominate more extreme — and potentially more beatable — candidates.

The party reached a flash point with its recent decision to invest more than $400,000 to help the primary challenger running on Tuesday against Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.). John Gibbs has promoted the bizarre “Spirit Cooking” conspiracy theory, which claims prominent Democrats participated in satanic rituals involving bodily fluids, and baselessly denied the 2020 election results. Meijer happens to be one of just 10 House Republicans who risked their careers by voting to impeach President Donald Trump.

The move has prompted a backlash among some House Democrats who worry not just about candidates like Gibbs potentially winning, but about the message it sends.

While this is a particularly pitched example, it’s hardly the only one. Democrats have spent money to help a trio of further-right candidates win primaries in governor’s races in Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They’ve also attempted the strategy in key races in California and Colorado — where it failed — and have dabbled in it in Arizona, which holds its gubernatorial primary Tuesday. In nearly every race, the beneficiary has been someone who has cast doubt on the 2020 election results.

Alongside Michigan, Pennsylvania might be the diciest situation, in that a leader of the election-denying movement, Doug Mastriano, is now the Republican nominee, polls competitively, and could soon wield significant control over that swing state’s election results. But in a good Republican year, you simply never know what kind of candidates could get swept up in a wave.

How they’re doing it

The efforts often sound as though they might be attacks — and would be understood as such in a general-election context — but in actuality they’re meant to attract more conservative Republican base voters to the candidates when that’s the matter at hand.

Usually this is done in one of three ways.

Tying them to Trump

Tying them to Trump

TOP LEFT: The first of four still images from campaign ads run ahead of Republican primaries. Funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (YouTube) TOP RIGHT: Funded by the Democratic Governors Association. (AdImpact) BOTTOM LEFT: Funded by the Democratic Governors Association. (YouTube) BOTTOM RIGHT: Funded by Shapiro for Pennsylvania. (AdImpact)

End of carousel

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro spent an estimated $855,000 boosting Mastriano in an ad calling him one of “Trump’s strongest supporters,” and talking about his belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The ad notes that if Mastriano wins the primary, it would be a “win for what Donald Trump stands for.”

Shapiro spent more than double what Mastriano spent on his own ads.

Mastriano, who went on to win his primary with 43.8 percent of the vote, was already a front-runner in the race. But the Republican establishment held out hope that their party would go in a different direction. And in an interview with Lancaster Online, a local newspaper in Lancaster, Pa., Mastriano quipped of Shapiro, “I’m going to have to send him a thank-you card.”

Polls now show Mastriano has a real shot of winning office.

In Maryland, the Democratic Governors Association spent an estimated $627,000 on an ad boosting Dan Cox in the state’s gubernatorial race. The ad touts Cox’s endorsement by Trump and says Cox “worked with Trump trying to prove the last election was a fraud.”

Cox won the primary by securing 52.1 percent of the vote.

Attacking the more-moderate candidate

Attacking the more-moderate candidate

TOP LEFT: The first of four still images from campaign ads run ahead of Republican primaries. Funded by Pritzker for Illinois. (AdImpact) TOP RIGHT: Another still image from the Pritzker ad. (AdImpact) BOTTOM LEFT: Funded by Democratic Colorado. (YouTube) BOTTOM RIGHT: Another image from the Democratic Colorado ad. (YouTube)

End of carousel

In the Illinois Republican primary for governor, incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker paid around $929,000 on an ad seeking to tie the Republican establishment favorite, Richard Irvin, to Pritzker himself. The ad opened with, “For someone running against J.B. Pritzker, Richard Irvin sure seems to like him,” according to broadcast television ad estimates from AdImpact.

The ad plays clips of Irvin calling Pritzker “a great friend and a great leader,” and closes with the question, “Why is he even running?”

Again, the ads carry plausible deniability. One could argue these are the kind of ads you would expect to see in a general election campaign, and Democrats could claim they were getting a jump on a matchup with Irvin.

But the size of the investment made clear what this was about. Darren Bailey, a leader of a far-right legislative caucus who once proposed separating Chicago from Illinois, won the Republican primary with 57 percent of the vote.

In Colorado’s Republican Senate primary, a political action committee called Democratic Colorado dropped $791,000 attacking Joe O’Dea, a moderate Republican. The ad touted O’Dea’s support for President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and referenced his donations to Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper after Hickenlooper “signed new gun safety measures into law.”

O’Dea defeated the more-extreme candidate, Ron Hanks, while taking 54.5 percent of the vote. Democrats’ efforts to meddle in two other Republican primaries in Colorado, including in the governor’s race, also failed.

‘Too conservative’

‘Too conservative’

TOP LEFT: The first of four still images from campaign ads run ahead of Republican primaries. Funded by Democratic Colorado. (AdImpact) TOP RIGHT: Funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with video shown above. (YouTube) BOTTOM LEFT: Funded by the Democratic Governors Association. (AdImpact) BOTTOM RIGHT: Funded by the Democratic Governors Association. (AdImpact)

End of carousel

Perhaps most often these ads will involve calling a candidate too conservative.

This was the strategy used in the McCaskill-Akin race Missouri in 2012, which stands as perhaps the most successful example of primary meddling to date. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill helped Rep. Todd Akin win the Republican primary by calling him “too conservative” for Missouri, pointing to how he was endorsed by Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee and had called President Barack Obama a “menace to society”. He promptly torpedoed his own candidacy with his comments about “legitimate rape.”

Democrats also got some traction out of meddling in the 2010 Nevada Republican Senate primary and the 2012 Indiana Republican Senate primary, which each resulted in further-right candidates emerging and then losing in races Republicans had a very good shot to win.

Whether that holds in 2022, we’ll have to see. And if it doesn’t, there will be plenty of I-told-you-sos.

The risks

The objections to the strategy are generally twofold.

One objection is that, if the November midterm elections don’t go to plan, Democrats could unintentionally help put candidates like Mastriano and Gibbs in office. (Meijer’s district favored Biden by 9 points in 2020.) The other is that it’s just a bad look, period, to fund such candidates. If undermining democracy is so dangerous, how can you possibly justify helping the person doing it? Even if they seem like an easier opponent?

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has told Politico, “It’s dishonorable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s just damn wrong.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a Jan. 6 committee member who voted alongside Meijer to impeach Trump, also argued it makes Democrats’ complaints about the lack of “good Republicans” ring hollow.

To date, the strategy has yet to backfire so spectacularly. It was used to good effect in key Senate races in the early 2010s, especially that 2012 contest in Missouri.

But this is a very limited sample size. The strategy’s usage is now increasing, and we’re a more polarized country, giving candidates like Mastriano and Gibbs more hope.

Video editing by Mahlia Posey and Peter Stevenson. Design editing by Madison Walls. Story editing by Kevin Uhrmacher and Sophia Nguyen. Photo editing by Natalia Jiménez. Copy editing by Anjelica Tan.