A high-risk Democratic strategy — the financial support of far-right Republicans endorsed by Donald Trump in their primaries — appears to have paid off in the midterms. As NPR reported Friday, six Democratic challengers in races where Democratic organizations have 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 eight states to elevate Republicans who hold extreme positions on abortion rights and support the conspiracy theory that Trump won the 2020 elections.
Although Tuesday’s midterm elections were extremely close and votes are still being counted in several races, Democrats fared much better than predicted in the weeks leading up to the election. Days into the race, it’s still unclear which party will control Congress in 2022. Republicans and Democrats each hold 49 seats in the Senate and House, where 25 races are still open, Democrats trail the GOP with 200. seats out of the 211 Republicans.
Some of that is likely due to Democratic spending in the 2022 primaries to boost far-right Republicans or those closely aligned with Trump. But it’s impossible to know how well this strategy actually worked and whether the wins justify the multi-million dollar price tag.
It’s a strategy some Democrats say is too dangerous to repeat in 2024 — it undermines the party’s message that it stands up for democracy, could take away resources that could be used for local organizing efforts and could even embolden some on the far right extremists and election deniers in political office.
Democrats spent millions in primaries to boost far-right Republicans
The Post in September reported on the phenomenon of Democrats spending millions to promote right-wing candidates against more moderate Republicans in primary races. By this estimate, party leadership and outside organizations spent a total of $18,775,000 in 12 races – five gubernatorial contests, two Senate races and six congressional races. Separately, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a billionaire, spent $9.5 million of his own money, combined with about $25 million from the Democratic Governor’s Association to boost Darren Bailey, a far-right state senator who supports Trump during the primary season. Pritzker won the race by 11 points 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 steps — linking a far-right Republican candidate to Trump and the MAGA movement, as Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro did to his opponent Doug Mastriano in hopes that the MAGA base will come out in the primary; he attacks the more moderate candidate, as Pritzker did. or running an ad calling the far-right Republican candidate “very conservative,” as in the Maryland gubernatorial races.
All three of these specific tactics have plausible deniability. They generally look like attack ads in the context of a general election. It’s the fact that the ads ran during the primary season that marks them as part of a larger strategy — to give Democrats an easier chance to win by avoiding a matchup with a more moderate Republican they saw as more electable.
It’s not a new strategy—former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill used it to great effect during her 2012 race. She called Todd Akin, her eventual opponent, “too conservative,” backing it up with endorsements. of Akin by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AL) and former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), as well as his comments about then-President Barack Obama that he was a “threat to our civilization.” Akin won the primary but torpedoed his campaign by saying that abortion was unnecessary in the case of “statutory rape” because “the female body has ways of trying to shut it all down.” Akin faded into obscurity and died last year.
In more than half of the Republican primary races that Democratic groups invested in, they outspent the far-right candidates they hoped would ultimately win, the Post found.
Some interventions were also done without money. In Arizona, for example, Trump-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake won her primary over moderate Karrin Taylor Robson after Arizona Democrats highlighted her past donations to Democratic candidates .
Christy Roberts, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Committee, told the Post on Friday that she and her team had tried to influence Trump to support the Democrats’ preferred opponents — or to attack more moderate Republicans he saw as insufficiently loyal.
“Our theory of the case from the beginning was that we assumed it was going to be a very difficult election for us,” he said, “we had to completely discredit and discredit our opponents.”
How well did this strategy actually work? And at what cost?
Although Democrats have done better than expected in the midterms — in some very critical races where their intervention appears to have paid off — strategists like Tré Easton, deputy director of the Battle Born Collective, a Democratic think tank, caution against counting in this.
“Basically my point is this: As a Democrat, I’m glad the bets paid off for the most part, but it was still dangerous 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 threat to democracy when we spend Democratic dollars to bolster the enemies of democracy.”
Even if far-right election naysayers like Doug Mastriano didn’t win Tuesday, their elevation to the national stage has other consequences. Tim Romer, a former congressman from Indiana, denounced the practice along with 34 other Democratic colleagues in an open letter in August.
“It risks elevating these liars and giving them a platform for another three or four months — even if they end up getting beat — to hammer home their message to the electorate and further erode trust,” Roemer told the Post on September. Especially in an election in which Democrats ran to preserve democracy and American institutions, the game of promoting negative elections and conspiracy theorists seems disingenuous indeed.
While the Democrats’ big gamble brought some wins and didn’t fail spectacularly, it also didn’t necessarily produce the desired results. In fact, in seven of the 13 races where Democrats spent to elect a far-right Republican candidate in the primary, they fell short by about $12,150,000 per a Post analysis. Of those seven races, Democrats have won three and are ahead in a fourth, despite facing more moderate opponents.
“I’m also skeptical about how much of a role Democratic investment played against Trump support and general voter sentiment about Trump and the issues,” Easton said.
It’s impossible to prove a negative, but Easton told Vox that the money Democrats spent trying to game the Republican primary could have been better spent. “He could [money] who helped Dan Cox in MD, did they make a difference in Nevada?’ he said, where Democrats lost the governorship and where incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto trails Republican challenger Adam Laxalt by just 862 votes as of this writing. “We’ll never know, but it’s an open question because of the strategic choices that were made.”
Democratic organizers and candidates in other races — notably in Florida and New York — have expressed frustration at the lack of support from the Democratic party. In Florida, Republicans crushed Democratic candidates until the end of the ballot in a former key 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 enterprise there meant that Republicans out-and-out-numbered Democratic candidates, contributing to those victories.
In New York, Republicans also did much better than expected in a deep blue state, picking up four congressional seats. One of those defeats was Sean Patrick Maloney, a five-term incumbent who is also chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the organization charged with supporting and electing Democrats running for Congress.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of chest-beating from some Democratic operatives about the success of the strategy,” Easton said, “but I really hope people don’t learn too many lessons from this really weird cycle where the DCCC chair could go. money and help to turn a seat blue, but he could not save himself in an area he chose to run.”
What data Democrats get from the results of their intervention and how they choose to spend in the 2024 election will depend on a number of key events, including whether Trump decides to run for president again. According to Easton, this may prompt Democrats to invest further in the high-stakes gamble, spending millions more, getting involved in more races and increasing their chances of spectacular failure.
“I think Trump’s presence on the scene is incentive enough for Democrats to spend big on rigging the primaries,” he said. “A risk that mostly pays off is good. To do it again during a cycle where so much will be essentially on the line is bad practice and arguably unethical.”