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How a surprising Democratic strategy may have staved off the midterm red wave

Risky funding of extreme right candidates could come at a cost.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks into a microphone during a campaign rally for former US President Donald Trump, wearing a red baseball cap.
Doug Mastriano speaks at a campaign rally on November 5.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

A high-risk Democratic strategy — financially backing far-right, Trump-endorsed Republicans in their primaries — appears to have paid off in the midterms. As NPR reported Friday, six Democratic challengers in races where Democratic organizations donated to extremist Republican candidates have so far won their contests. The question that looms over this tactic has yet to be answered: at what cost?

As the Washington Post reported in September, national Democratic groups and political action committees (PACs) spent tens of millions of dollars in at least seven states to elevate Republicans who hold extreme positions on abortion rights and support the conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Though Tuesday’s midterm elections were extremely close and votes are still being counted in several races, Democrats fared much better than projected in the weeks leading up to the elections. Days after the race, it’s still unclear which party will control Congress in 2022; as of November 12, Republicans and Democrats each have 49 seats in the Senate, and in the House, where 23 races are still in limbo, Democrats trail the GOP with 201 seats to the Republicans’ 211.

Some of that is likely due to Democratic spending in the 2022 primaries to elevate far-right Republicans or those closely aligned with Trump. But it’s impossible to know how much that strategy actually worked and whether the wins justify the multimillion-dollar price tag.

It’s a strategy that some Democrats say is too risky to repeat in 2024 — it undermines the party’s message that it’s defending democracy, could take away resources that might be used for local organizing efforts, and could even propel some far-right extremists and election deniers into political office.

Democrats spent millions in the primaries to elevate far-right Republicans

The Post in September reported on the phenomenon of Democrats spending millions on promoting right-wing candidates over more moderate Republicans in primary races. By their estimate then, the party leadership and outside organizations spent almost $19 million across 12 races — five gubernatorial contests, two Senate races, and five congressional races. Separately, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire, spent $9.5 million of his own money, combined with about $25 million from the Democratic Governors Association, to push Darren Bailey, a far-right, Trump-endorsed state senator, during the primary season. Pritzker won the race with an 11-point lead over Bailey to secure his second term in office, and Bailey conceded.

The Post’s analysis found that most of the spending was on advertising, which took one of three tacks — tying a far-right Republican candidate to Trump and the MAGA movement, as Pennsylvania governor-elect Josh Shapiro did with his GOP rival Doug Mastriano in hopes that the MAGA base would turn out in the primaries; attacking the more moderate candidate, as Pritzker did; or putting out advertising branding the far-right Republican candidate as “too conservative,” as in the Maryland gubernatorial races.

All three of these specific tactics have plausible deniability. They generally look like they could be attack ads in the context of a general election. It’s the fact that the advertisements ran during primary season that marks them as part of a larger strategy — to give Democrats an easier shot at winning by avoiding a matchup with a more moderate Republican who they considered more electable.

It’s not a new strategy — former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill used it to great effect during her 2012 race. She hyped up former Rep. Todd Akin, her eventual opponent, as “too conservative,” focusing on Akin’s endorsements from former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) and former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and comments Akin made about then-President Barack Obama being a “menace to our civilization.” Akin did win the primary but quickly sank his own campaign by saying that abortion wasn’t necessary in the case of “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin faded into obscurity and died last year.

In more than half the Republican primary races Democratic groups invested in financially, they outspent the far-right candidates they hoped to eventually defeat, the Post found.

Some interference happened without money, too. In Arizona, for instance, the Trump-backed, election-denying GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake won her primary against moderate Karrin Taylor Robson after Arizona Democrats highlighted her past donations to Democratic candidates.

Christie Roberts, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the Post on Friday that she and her team tried to influence Trump to endorse Democrats’ favored opponents — or to lash out against more moderate Republicans he saw as insufficiently loyal.

“Our theory of the case from the beginning was we assumed that this was going to be a very tough election for us,” she said, “We had to utterly discredit and disqualify our opponents.”

How well did this strategy really work? And at what cost?

Although Democrats did better than expected in the midterms — in some pretty crucial races where their interference seems to have paid off — strategists like Tré Easton, deputy director of the Battle Born Collective, a Democratic advisory group, warn against relying on it.

“Basically my take is this: As a Democrat, I’m glad the gambles mostly paid off, but it was still risky and reckless and I hope it doesn’t become a habit,” he told Vox via Twitter DM. “It undermines our arguments about the very real democracy threat when we spend Democratic dollars bolstering people hostile to democracy.”

Even if far-right election deniers like Doug Mastriano didn’t win on Tuesday, elevating them to the national stage has other consequences. Former Rep. Tim Roemer, of Indiana, denounced the practice alongside 34 other Democratic colleagues in an August open letter.

“It risks elevating these liars and giving them a platform for another three or four months — even if they end up getting beat — to drumbeat their message into the electorate and further erode trust,” Roemer told the Post in September. Especially in an election in which Democrats ran on preserving democracy and American institutions, the gambit of promoting election deniers and conspiracy theorists does seem disingenuous.

Though the Democrats’ big-ticket gamble produced some wins and didn’t fail spectacularly, it also didn’t necessarily garner the desired results; in fact, in seven of the 13 races where Democrats spent to get a far-right Republican candidate elected in the primaries, they failed to the tune of approximately $12 million, per the Post’s analysis. Of those seven races, Democrats have won three and are ahead in a fourth, despite facing more moderate opponents.

“I’m also skeptical of how much of a role Democratic investment played versus Trump’s endorsement and voters’ general feelings about Trump and the issues,” Easton said.

It’s impossible to prove a negative, but Easton told Vox he thinks the money that Democrats used up trying to game the Republican primaries could have been better spent. “Could the [money] that went to prop up Dan Cox in MD have made the difference in Nevada?” he said — Nevada, where Democrats lost the governorship and where incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto trails Republican challenger Adam Laxalt by less than 900 votes at this writing. “We’ll never know, but it’s an open question because of strategic choices that were made.”

Democratic organizers and candidates in other races — specifically in Florida and New York — have expressed their disappointment in the Democratic Party’s lack of support. In Florida, Republicans crushed Democratic candidates all the way down the ballot in a former key swing state. There are several factors that led to the Democrats’ defeat, including low turnout and demographic changes, as Vice News reported Friday. But the lack of a strong Democratic operation there meant that Republicans outspent and out-organized Democratic candidates, contributing to those victories.

In New York, Republicans also performed much better than expected in a deep blue state, taking four congressional seats. One of those defeats was Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a five-term incumbent and the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the organization tasked with supporting and electing Democrats running for Congress.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of chest-pounding from some Democratic operatives on the success of the strategy,” Easton said, “but I really hope folks don’t over-learn lessons from this really weird cycle where the DCCC chair could spend money and help flip a seat blue, but couldn’t even save himself in a district he chose to run in.”

What data Democrats will draw from the outcomes of their interference and how they choose to spend money on the 2024 elections will depend on a number of key events, including whether Trump decides to run for president again. According to Easton, that may push Democrats to invest further in their high-risk gamble, spending millions more, interfering in more races, and increasing their chances of spectacular failure.

“I think Trump being on the scene is incentive enough for Democrats to spend big on manipulating the primaries,” he said. “One risk that mostly pays off is fine. Doing it again during a cycle where so much will fundamentally be on the line is malpractice and, arguably, immoral.”