If the Democratic Party is to be believed, the coming midterm elections will herald the most radical field of right wing Republican candidates to ever run for office. President Joe Biden summed up his party’s pitch ahead of the November 2022 vote when he called the MAGA movement “the most extreme political organisation that’s existed in American history.”
So why, then, are Democrats trying so hard to help them win?
Across the country, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Illinois, Democratic groups are bankrolling political ads to bolster fringe Republican candidates. The aim of that support is to elevate extreme GOP candidates over their moderate rivals during primary season, with the expectation that they will be easier to beat in a general election.
Among the candidates being promoted by Democrats are Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator running for governor who worked to overturn the 2020 election and even chartered buses to the US Capitol on January 6.
Then there is Dan Cox, Republican gubernatorial candidate for Maryland, who has pushed the same election fraud falsehoods. Larry Hogan, the departing GOP governor, called Cox “a “conspiracy-theory-believing QAnon whack-job.”
In Arizona, GOP candidate Kari Lake said she would not have certified Joe Biden’s victory in Arizona, as she was required to do by law, and has repeatedly spread falsehoods about the 2020 election. She, too, is receiving help from Democrats.
It’s a bold but risky strategy, as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton can attest. During the GOP primary campaign in 2016, her team spoke often of their ideal match-up against an inexperienced wild card named Donald Trump.
Support for these candidates is being distributed in some novel ways. Democrats have been airing ads that are, ostensibly, an attack on their rivals, but in truth are designed to boost them with Republican voters.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro boosted Mr Mastriano with ads that tout his close relationship with Donald Trump and his support for abortion restrictions.
“This is Republican state senator Doug Mastriano […] He wants to outlaw abortion. It’s Mastriano who wrote the heartbeat bill in Pennsylvania and he’s one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters,” says one ad produced by Mr Shapiro’s campaign.
“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for. Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?” it continues.
Mr Mastriano welcomed the ads, telling a local news outlet: “I’m glad he [Shapiro] did it. Once again, he’s underestimated me.”
“I’m going to have to send him a thank you card.” he told Lancaster Online.
Mr Mastriano went on to win the primary. In the time since, the political environment for Democrats has only worsened for Democrats and Mr Mastriano trails Mr Shapiro by a mere three to four points in polls.
The campaign to boost Dan Cox in Maryland is even more sophisticated. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has spent more than $1 million in recent weeks on ads promoting Mr Cox’s conservative positions — more than both Republican candidates combined.
They have also produced online ads highlighting him as “the MAGA candidate” and “Trump’s pick for Maryland.” Those online ads have specifically targeted people with interests usually held by conservative voters, according to Axios, which parsed through newly released Facebook and Instagram targeting data. The ads were been pushed to people interested in hunting, fishing, yachting, baseball, country music, Axios reported, but excluded people who are interested in yoga and environmental science — interests usually claimed by Democratic voters.
Mr Cox won his primary on Tuesday, beating a candidate hand-picked by outgoing governor Larry Hogan.
The DGA used a similar tactic in Illinois, describing farmer and state Sen. Darren Bailey as “too conservative for Illinois” in ads aimed at boosting his image among conservatives during primary season. The DGA, together with the Democratic Party of Illinois and Democratic incumbent J.B. Pritzker’s campaign, spent almost a combined $37 million on digital and TV ads that either raised Mr Bailey’s profile or attacked his more moderate opponent, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.
Trump-endorsed candidate Kari Lake was helped along by Democrats earlier this month when they sent a Machiavellian email blast that thanked her GOP primary opponent for earlier donations to the Democratic Party.
“As the Republican primary for governor continues to stir toxic infighting, the Arizona Democratic Party will always be grateful for Robson’s longtime support in helping elect Democrats up and down the ballot, including this November,” Josselyn Berry, a spokesperson for the state party, was quoted as saying at the bottom of the email.
The strategy of boosting extremist candidates may have some short-term advantages, but at a time when democracy is under attack from election deniers across the country, many Democrats, democracy advocates and even moderate Republicans are warning against it.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to president Barack Obama and chief strategist for his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, wrote in an op-ed for CNN earlier this month that “fabled Washington parlor trick” may have had its day.
“Shrewd as it may seem, it feeds the growing jaundice about politics. But more than that, a miscalculation could put extremists in positions of authority,” he wrote.
“At a time when faith in our system and elections is so strained, I can’t help thinking that this only adds to growing cynicism about their legitimacy. And at a time when we need both parties to produce responsible choices, this cross-party manipulation works against it,” he added.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at University of California Irvine, has also sounded the alarm.
“Indeed, Democrats are playing with fire in pushing election deniers for state offices in primaries in hopes they’ll be easier to defeat in November. Outrageous and dangerous,” he wrote on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Republican senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney told HuffPost that it was “not illegal but it sure is stupid.”
Mr Romney is one of the few high-profile Republicans to publicly repudiate Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, as well as his continuing efforts to subvert future votes.
“Be careful what you wish for. You may select somebody who actually wins and then you hurt the country as well as your own party,” he added.