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Democrats have been boosting ultra-right candidates. It could backfire.

Is this reverse psychology a little too clever?

Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), who voted to impeach Trump, is facing a right-wing challenger boosted by Democrats.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

John Gibbs, who defended a notorious anti-Semitic troll banned by Twitter, got over $400,000 in ad dollars. Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who compared gun control to policies under Nazi Germany and shared an image saying Roe v. Wade was “so much” worse than the Holocaust, got more than $800,000. Maryland state Del. Dan Cox, who has associated with QAnon conspiracy theorists, got $1.2 million. And Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey, who pushed to evict Chicago from the state, got $35 million.

National Democrats, party-aligned nonprofits, and some of their candidates have together spent millions to elevate the most extreme positions of far-right candidates in races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Colorado, and Maryland, and it’s a strategy that’s divided party operatives. The total investment this cycle was over $44 million as of last quarter, according to an Open Secrets analysis.

Party representatives have claimed it’s because they want to highlight the extremism of today’s GOP, knowing that even candidates who are running as “moderates” will feel pressure to appeal to voters on their right flank. They have denied that it’s with the intent of making extremist candidates more appealing to a Republican primary base and because they think it will be easier to beat those kinds of opponents in November.

But that’s what it looks like to some Democratic operatives, who have mixed reviews of that strategy. Some think it’s too dangerous and that it could lead to some of those extremist candidates actually getting elected. Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson told Politico that the strategy of “putting people into positions where they may actually get elected and have control over the election system in this country — people who don’t believe in democracy — is a very, very risky strategy.”

But others have said that Democrats are simply doing everything they can to give their candidates the best shot at winning in a tough cycle nationally, and also head off the need for major spending in the general election.

They’re not outright telling Republican voters to back extremist candidates. Rather, their ads are trying to employ reverse psychology and attacking candidates for being too extreme, which they know the GOP base will take as a high compliment.

“This is not a strategy that you deploy in every race,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic consultant based in Virginia. “But the whole argument that Democrats shouldn’t be running ads in the primary is predicated on the idea that Republicans are not fully rotted with Trumpism. It’s clear that, no matter what Republican is nominated, they are going to get pushed to move to where their base is. So the best path is to do what you can to set up the best environment for Democrats to win.”

Has the strategy worked to make races easier for Democrats to win?

It’s not the first time Democrats have tried to manipulate GOP primaries. In 2012, then-incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill ran a $1.7 million ad campaign designed to boost one of her Republican challengers, Rep. Todd Akin, by running ads that said he was too conservative for Missouri, knowing that “too conservative” would be a virtue in the eyes of many Republican primary voters. “I had successfully manipulated the Republican primary so that in the general election I would face the candidate I was most likely to beat,” she later wrote in a memoir, excerpted in Politico. “As it turned out, we spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign.”

Some of the extremist Republican candidates boosted by Democrats this cycle have already gone on to win their party’s nomination.

In Maryland, the Democratic Governors Association launched an ad campaign in the final weeks before Tuesday’s primaries that linked Cox, one of the Republican gubernatorial candidates, to Trump and played up his far-right positions. The campaign criticizes him for being “100 percent pro-life” and for “refusing to support any federal restrictions” on guns. Politico reported that the DGA had reserved at least $1.2 million worth of airtime, which is more than Cox himself and the other Republican primary frontrunner, Kelly Schulz, had spent on advertising combined.

Cox won the nomination, though it’s not clear whether the DGA campaign pushed him over the edge. He will face Democrat Wes Moore, a bestselling author backed by Oprah Winfrey. Democrats believe Cox is too far to the right to win, and that he has no chance of winning over the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who previously voted for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is term-limited.

In the Illinois Republican primary for governor, incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the DGA, which he helps fund using his billion-dollar fortune, spent almost $35 million total trying to paint Bailey, a pro-Trump Republican, as the most conservative candidate in the race. Ultimately, Bailey handily won the nomination.

And in Pennsylvania, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor, spent more than $840,000 on TV ads ahead of the primaries saying that if Mastriano, one of his Republican opponents, prevailed, it would be a “win for what Donald Trump stands for.” Mastriano has been a fervent proponent of Trump’s 2020 election lies and was subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection for his involvement in busing rallygoers to the Capitol. He also ended up winning the nomination.

But the strategy wasn’t successful in Colorado or California. In the GOP primary for Colorado’s US Senate seat, Democratic groups spent roughly $4 million on ads designed to make far-right candidate Ron Hanks more appealing to GOP voters over his more moderate opponent, Joe O’Dea, who nevertheless won the nomination.

The Democratic-aligned PAC Colorado Information Network, which is primarily funded by the DGA, and the liberal nonprofit ProgressNow Colorado also sank almost $2 million on ads painting former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, who has embraced Trump’s 2020 election lies, as the ultra-conservative candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary. And in Colorado’s Eighth District, House Majority PAC and other Democratic-aligned PACs spent nearly $300,000 on ads boosting Lori Saine over the more moderate frontrunner state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer. Both Lopez and Saine lost by considerable margins.

Democrats similarly tried to boost Chris Mathys in California’s newly drawn 22nd District, spending $110,000 on ads playing up his support for Trump, but his opponent Rep. David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump following the Capitol insurrection, pulled through.

Democrats are still waiting to see whether their investments in the August 2 Michigan primaries pay off. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dropped $425,000 on ads boosting Gibbs, who’s been endorsed by Trump, in his challenge to first-term GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach the former president earlier this year. The ads say Gibbs is “too conservative for West Michigan” and tout his “hard line on immigrants at the border.”

“I’m sick and tired of hearing the sanctimonious bullshit about the Democrats being the pro-democracy party,” Meijer told Politico.

The DCCC declined to comment on the ad.

David Turner, a spokesperson for the DGA, pushed back on the idea that the organization is replicating McCaskill’s strategy this cycle with far-right candidates. He told Vox that, by making these investments in the primaries, the organization has merely “started the general election early and educated voters about the extremism of their positions on all sorts of things.”

He said that Cox and Mastriano were already among the frontrunners in their respective races by the time Democrats ran their ads, and that they’d also benefited from Trump’s endorsement. In April, before Shapiro’s May 5 ad boosting Mastriano aired, Mastriano was already leading the primary field, according to a poll by Eagle Consulting Group, a Republican consulting firm based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And prior to the DGA’s July 1 ad, Cox also had a slight lead over Schulz in Maryland, according to a June Goucher College poll.

So to the extent that DGA’s ads might have made them more appealing to Republican primary voters, it’s because Republican primary voters were already energized behind far-right candidates, Turner said.

“Republican primary voters, again and again, are saying, ‘This is what we want,”’ he said.

Will Democrats’ strategy backfire in the general election?

Democrats’ assumption that it’s easier to beat a more extreme right-wing candidate is a risky one. Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has since left the party, called it “bad for the public and a symptom of how perverse our current system is.”

Certainly, it might be easier for a Democrat to run against a candidate who has been endorsed by Trump, who proved an effective villain in 2020, and especially so in left-leaning states like Illinois, Colorado, and Maryland. The strategy could pay off as a shrewd investment that will avert the need for heavier spending in the general election, freeing up funds that could be put toward more competitive races elsewhere.

But as history has shown, there’s still a risk that these far-right candidates will put up a fight and even get elected. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made the mistake of seeking to elevate Trump and other “Pied Piper” Republican presidential candidates with extreme conservative views in the primaries over the more establishment Republicans then perceived as her true rivals.

The poll numbers in Pennsylvania — a state where Republicans hold a 2 percentage point advantage, according to the 2022 Cook Partisan Voting Index — aren’t encouraging for Democrats hoping to avoid a repeat of 2016. Mastriano is trailing Shapiro by no more than 4 percentage points across three separate polls conducted in June by Cygnal, Suffolk University, and Fabrizio, Lee, and Associates/Impact Research.

That said, Mastriano still faces an uphill battle in the state, where he’ll need to broaden his appeal beyond the GOP base. So far, he’s not getting much help from the party establishment: Nine current and former Republican state officials have endorsed Shapiro over Mastriano. The Republican Governors Association has yet to announce plans to come to his aid, despite Mastriano’s pitch at an RGA meeting in Colorado earlier this week where he said, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Shapiro has also spent more than $4.7 million on ads since the primary, whereas Mastriano has not spent anything.

The other states where Democrats have boosted right-wing candidates look safer. In Illinois, Pritzker had a 7 percentage point advantage over Bailey in a June Fabrizio, Lee, and Associates poll.

Though there hasn’t been general election polling conducted in Maryland, there’s reason for Democrats to be confident heading into the fall. President Joe Biden won Maryland by more than 30 percentage points in 2020, and there are more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

The message that Democrats are going to deliver in the general election in those races is the same as the ads they’ve been running in the primaries: that the Republican Party has “gone off the rails,” Turner said.

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