Jun 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats play with fire in GOP primaries

Illustration of a small blue donkey hiding behind a large red elephant foot.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Democratic groups are buying ads touting some of the most extreme pro-Trump candidates in Republican primaries around the country — meddling in GOP contests to set up more favorable matchups in November.

Why it matters: The risky gambit assumes general-election voters will reject candidates who embrace conspiracy theories or lies about the 2020 election. But it could dramatically backfire by vaulting fringe Republicans into national office.

Driving the news: Ahead of last week's primaries, the Nancy Pelosi-affiliated House Majority PAC funded a 30-second TV ad promoting self-declared "Trump Conservative" Chris Mathys against moderate Republican Rep. David Valadao in California's 22nd District.

  • "David Valadao claims he’s Republican ― yet, David Valadao voted to impeach President Trump," the narrator of the Democratic-funded ad declared.
  • House Majority PAC communications director CJ Warnke told Axios the group is confident that Democrat Rudy Salas "will flip this district blue no matter who MAGA Republicans nominate."
  • In California's 40th District, Democrat Asif Mahmood has been running ads casting Republican Greg Raths — who had to apologize last month for using antisemitic tropes — as his head-to-head opponent instead of moderate Rep. Young Kim.
  • The strategy appears to have fallen short in this case, as both Kim and Valadao are on track to prevail in their respective primary races.

Meanwhile in Colorado, a new Democratic super PAC cut a TV ad boosting far-right, election-denying state Rep. Ron Hanks in the June 28 GOP primary to decide who will take on Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

  • The group has reserved at least $1.49 million in TV ad slots across Colorado over the next few weeks.
  • Hanks' moderate Republican rival Joe O'Dea accused Democrats of "hijacking the Republican nomination for an unserious candidate who has zero chance of winning."

In the Pennsylvania governor's race, the state Democratic Party used campaign resources to boost Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano — who has been subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee for his involvement in the pro-Trump "Stop the Steal" campaign.

  • Mastriano won the GOP nomination over former Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), prompting Cook Political Report to shift its forecast for the general election from "toss up" to "lean Democrat."

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association are spending millions to hurt Black veteran Richard Irvin's chances in the GOP primary and highlight the conservative bona fides of his rival, state Sen. Darren Bailey.

Flashback: In elections past, the tactic has been deployed with mixed success.

  • In a Politico piece titled, "How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later," then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) described her 2012 strategy of engineering her ultimate general election opponent.
  • But Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign shows how the strategy can backfire in devastating fashion: The team sought to elevate Donald Trump in the GOP primaries, believing he would be an easier general election matchup.
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