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Did Democrat money sabotage the Republican primaries?

Even some Democrats have warned that the party is playing a dangerous game by promoting candidates with extreme views

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Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

John Gibbs’ campaign was struggling. 

Fresh off a stint in the Trump administration, Gibbs announced his bid late last year to oust incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich. Meijer was a vulnerable Republican primary target as one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Things looked good. Gibbs had Trump’s endorsement, and even appeared with him on stage. Gibbs was set to benefit from the MAGA political machine constructed by his former boss. 

But the campaign donations never came rolling in. After six months of campaigning, Meijer had outraised Gibbs by a wide margin. Gibbs reported $443,000 in total money raised with $125,000 cash on hand; Meijer raised nearly $2.9 million with $1.4 million cash on hand.

The race was competitive, but in the closing stretch Meijer had more than a 10 times cash advantage. Gibbs was up against the ropes. That is, until Democrats stepped in to save the MAGA candidate. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent nearly half a million dollars airing TV ads boosting his campaign for the last week of the race. Gibbs went on to narrowly defeat Meijer in the GOP primary by roughly 2% of the total vote.

Democrats who support the tactic of funding ads promoting more extreme Republicans believe it will make winning the general election easier. But other political insiders and commentators are worried it could usher in a new era of win-at-all-costs politics. 

Democrats and Republicans have long employed dirty tricks to justify their end goal of winning elections. Republican Richard Nixon had Watergate and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson took 1940s Texas voter fraud to new heights.

They played dirty behind the scenes. These new tactics, however, are being deployed in broad daylight. 

Is it OK for the Democratic campaign arm to help pro-Trump candidates beat more moderate Republican incumbents even as they claim that Trump and his allies represent an existential threat to democracy?

“We are dealing with a politics that does not reward substance, that does not reward, you know, reality,” Meijer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Others have pointed out that if the Democratic Party is truly “thankful” for Meijer’s vote to impeach Trump, its last minute boost of his pro-Trump opponent was a strange way to show it. 

Gibbs’s race, of course, isn’t the only Republican primary Democrats have sought to influence this year, which has experts wondering whether this is the beginning of a new trend.

And yet, the tactic hasn’t always proven successful. 

One pro-Democrat group in Colorado, for example, poured seven figures worth of advertising into the Republican gubernatorial primary trying to get primary voters to put forward a candidate who was at the Capitol during Jan. 6 rather than businessman Joe O’Dea. In the end, O’Dea won the GOP primary. Now some Democrats worry that the money spent trying to persuade Republicans that O’Dea was too moderate may end up making him attractive to many in the general election.  

And then there’s Pennsylvania. Rather than paying for more ads to bolster his own candidacy for governor in the state, Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign paid for commercials that helped MAGA candidate Doug Mastriano — thinking he would be much easier to defeat in the general elections. Mastriano won the nomination, and early polling is showing a race that could be much closer than Shapiro and Democrats anticipated. 

In Illinois and Maryland, the strategy has been more effective. In both states Democratic groups were able to help MAGA-candidates, who backed Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, to win their party’s gubernatorial primary election. And, since both Illinois and Maryland tend to lean blue, there’s a good chance these Democratic strategies have improved their chances of winning the general election. 

But not all Democrats are on board. And, Meijer’s narrow loss last week to Gibbs brought tensions over the strategy to a boil. Longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod said these efforts are making Democrats into instruments to enact “Trump’s revenge.”

“It’s wrong,” he tweeted. 

“No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a member of the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot, told Politico. 

“Many of us are facing death threats over our efforts to tell the truth about Jan. 6,” Murphy continued. “To have people boosting candidates telling the very kinds of lies that caused Jan. 6 and continues to put our democracy in danger, is just mind-blowing.”

But some Republicans believe by condemning this behavior so publicly, Democrats are trying to have it both ways — wringing their hands out loud while still benefiting from the tactics. Although House Democrats raised their concerns with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the $435,000 ad boosting Gibbs was purchased with party membership dues, signaling Democratic leadership signed off on the strategy. 

Arguments in favor of the strategy focus on protecting Democrats’ slim House majority at all costs. 

“The DCCC is laser focused on holding the House majority, which we will accomplish by fighting for every competitive seat,” committee spokeswoman Helen Kalla said in a statement given to Politico. “Kevin McCarthy is an anti-choice insurrectionist coddler and conspiracy enabler, and we will do what it takes to keep the speaker’s gavel out of his hands.” 

Meijer’s Western Michigan district is a priority for the Democrats’ midterm strategy as it is one of only a few in the nation currently held by Republicans where President Joe Biden won in 2020. The Democtratic committee’s intervention in Meijer’s primary race is noteworthy not only for boosting Gibbs to victory, but also for spending more money on the TV ad than Gibbs’ campaign raised for the entire race.

Though morally murky, Democratic strategists may be playing a long game that goes beyond the midterms. Independent journalist Josh Barro suggests the chaos of this strategy will cause electable Republicans to avoid running altogether and that’s part of why Democrats are willing to take the political risk. 

Meijer appealed to the “upscale suburban voters” the GOP has been losing for years, Barro argues. Eliminating these GOP candidates makes it “harder for Republicans to fix their candidate quality problems.” Barro claims that “Trumpification” of Republican Party candidates gives a structural advantage to Democrats because “some of the people who could be the (GOP’s) strongest candidates in competitive races aren’t even interested in entering or staying in politics.”

The New York Times Editorial Board meanwhile denounced the strategy as “a cynical low for the Democratic Party,” calling it “profoundly irresponsible” and asking “(w)hat if these election deniers actually win?” The Times specifically called out the Democratic Governors Association for spending “an estimated $2 million toward boosting the candidacy of Dan Cox” over moderate Republican Kelly Shultz for the Maryland gubernatorial GOP nomination. 

Other races have proven how complicated the strategy can become. For example, a Democratic super PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., financed an ad attacking Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., another one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. But Valadao narrowly defeated his Trump-aligned opponent in the June primary.

The Times warns that even if Democratic “gamesmanship” is ultimately successful in November, “it will come at a steep price, threatening the political survival of the few Republicans who are willing to rebuild a strong center-right party that will step up to protect democratic norms.” 

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who also voted with Democrats to impeach Trump, is concerned the tactic will kill future bipartisanship in Congress. “Don’t come to me after spending money supporting an election denier in a primary,” Kinzinger told CNN, “And then come to me and say, ‘Where are all the good Republicans?’”

Democratic meddling in GOP primaries may also give a false impression of Trump’s standing in the Republican Party. This year’s midterm elections will undoubtedly serve as a proxy fight to determine if Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party, and whether the former president still has the support to mount a bid for a second term. 

And, as Meijer warned Sunday, as long as Biden’s approval ratings struggle the Democrats are playing a risky game that could allow Gibbs and other Trump-aligned candidates victory in November. “It is easy to see that strategy backfiring in a spectacular way, which is all the more reason why we should not be embracing the zero-sum idea of politics,” he said.

The day after Meijer’s loss to Gibbs in the primary, the Cook Political Report changed the Michigan 3rd Congressional District rating from “Toss Up” to “Lean Democratic.” 

That evening the Democratic campaign committee put out a press release in support of their Democratic nominee, entitled: “The Case Against John Gibbs.”