A tactical move by the party to try to stem a potential Red Wave in the upcoming midterms
Democrats are pouring millions of dollars to meddle in Republican primaries in a tough election year. Experts say they do so to prop up Republican candidates who they think are easiest to beat in the general election.
In some races, their wishes have come true.
In the July 19 Maryland Republican gubernatorial primary, Trump endorsee Dan Cox captured the nomination, defeating incumbent-backed Kelly Schulz by a 10-point margin. Schulz had outraised Cox by five to one.
In the weeks leading up to the primary, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) spent $2.14 million—almost 11 times the total amount Cox raised this year—on TV and online ads broadcasting Cox’s platform, according to the campaign finance disclosures filed with the state (pdf.)
Democrats played the same tactic in Illinois, Nevada, and Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial primaries, which all nominated the candidates favored by the opposition party. It was also used in Colorado but to no avail.
In California, the tactic was used in two congressional races, yet the candidates favored by the Democrats lost too.
According to campaign finance disclosures filed with the above states, the governors association is the top financier of the Democratic money flowing into these Republican primaries.
DGA is a Washington-based 527 organization with a singular mission to elect and reelect Democratic governors across the nation.
The Epoch Times reached out to DGA for comments.
According to University of Buffalo associate professor in political science Jacob Neiheisel, Democrats are doing all they can to stem a potential Red Wave, including boosting Republican candidates they think are easiest to beat in the fall.
“By pushing somebody ideologically far right across the line, Democrats can make the stakes so high for their side and increase their turnout while turning off independents in the general election. At least, that’s the theory,” he told The Epoch Times.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, I have to think the Republicans would be doing very similar things,” he added.
‘Tipped the Scales’
Neiheisel said it was hard to gauge how effective the tactic was in a particular race without good polling data throughout the campaign and good data on ad buys such as gross rating points and targeted media markets.
Plus, Republican primary voters are typically more ideological than general election voters and favor the kind of candidates promoted by Democrats anyway, he said.
“It is certainly possible that the DGA money tipped the scales. It is also possible that a candidate like Cox is someone who has the support of Republican primary voters,” he said.
In Nevada, Trump endorsee Joe Lombardo already led in polls before DGA-backed “A Stronger NV PAC” spent $4.78 million in the gubernatorial race.
“A Stronger NV PAC” was formed in April as an independent expenditure political committee to help reelect incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak and defeat Republican gubernatorial candidates, according to its registration form (pdf.)
The PAC launched a statewide TV campaign broadcasting Lombardo’s platform ahead of the primary. According to a financial disclosure form filed with the state (pdf,) the PAC’s top funder is DGA, contributing $4.6 million.
Lombardo prevailed in the competitive 16-way Republican primary with an 11-point margin.
According to University of Virginia commonwealth professor in politics Jennifer Lawless, this tactic is a natural extension of strategic voting at the individual voter level.
“Strategic voting among voters has been around for a while, especially in states with open primaries, where a Democrat would vote in the Republican primary to elect the weakest candidate in the general election. But only a very small percentage of voters do it, ” Lawless told The Epoch Times.
“What we are seeing here is that political elites and Democratic associations are getting involved.
“It is better funded, and it has the potential to have a little bit more of an effect because you are not depending on individual voters to come up with that calculus on their own,” Lawless said.
But it can also be a risky strategy, Lawless said. “What we’ve learned in the past several election cycles is that strange things can happen.
“Although Democrats are being careful about where they are doing this, there is still a little bit of risk. You never know exactly who is going to turn out or what can happen in the general election.”
In the swing state of Pennsylvania, one recent poll suggests that the Republican nominee Doug Mastriano seemed to be in an unexpected potential tight race with the Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro. Other polls showed a wider gap.
Shapiro, the state’s attorney general who faced no serious challenger in the Democratic primary, spent an unclear amount of money on a communication campaign broadcasting Mastriano’s platform.
A strong fundraiser, Shapiro has raised $12 million by early June in 2022, outraising Mastriano by nearly 17 times, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the state.
Shapiro defended his spending in the Republican primary in interviews with media outlets, saying that Mastriano was the primary frontrunner and that he was only doing an early general election campaign.
The Playbook: Operation Dog Whistle
This tactic to boost the other party’s perceived weakest candidate went back at least to the 2012 Missouri primary.
That year, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, successfully used it in her reelection bid.
She later painstakingly laid out her playbook in a Politico Magazine article.
One month before the primary, McCaskill made an unprecedented move in her political career: she paid $40,000 to take a poll of Missouri Republican voters.
The poll first asked voters to rank the three Republican candidates in the Senate primary. The result showed U.S. Rep. Todd Akin came a distant second, at 17 percent.
However, the result shifted drastically after voters were given details of candidates’ platforms and messages: Akin, a Tea Party Caucus founding member who branded himself as one of the most conservative members in Congress, became the front runner, with 38 percent of the votes.
The poll suggested to McCaskill that if she could help Akin, the weakest fundraiser in the Republican primary, spread his platform and messages among Republican voters, she would very well propel him to victory.
That would in turn help her reelection, she figured. McCaskill deemed Akin the weakest Republican candidate among general election voters and easiest to beat in the fall.
So, her campaign produced what they called a “dog whistle” ad, using “reverse psychology” to tell primary Republican voters not to vote for Akin because he was too conservative for Missouri.
“This presentation made it look as though I was trying to disqualify him, though as we know, when you call someone ‘too conservative’ in a Republican primary, that’s giving him or her a badge of honor,” McCaskill wrote in the article.
During the weeks leading up to the primary, McCaskill spent a total of $1.7 million for Akin, more than Akin spent for himself.
As the ad was broadcasted to targeted Republican voters, Akin was inching up in McCaskill’s internal polls, tightening the gap between himself and the front runner. Akin eventually captured the Republican nominee.
McCaskill went on to beat Akin with a nearly 15-point margin in the general election.
She summed up her “dog whistle operation” by saying that she “had successfully manipulated the Republican primary.”
In 2022, Democrats overwhelmingly used this type of “reverse psychology” ad to meddle in the Republican primaries, too.
The ad often introduced the target Republican candidates as Trump endorsee, 100 percent pro-life, and pro-second amendment. It then ended with a tagline like “Greg Lopez, too conservative for Colorado.”
Greg Lopez was a Republican gubernatorial candidate, running against Heidi Ganahl in a two-way primary race. Ganahl outraised Lopez (Lopez raised $154,931 this year) by eight to one, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the state.
In the month leading up to the primary, Colorado Information Network IE Committee spent $1.2 million on TV ads and $300,000 on digital ads to broadcast Lopez’s platform.
The committee got the lion’s share of funding, $1.525 million, from Strong Colorado for All. The latter got the bulk of its money, $1.575 million, from DGA, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the state.
Ganahl won against Lopez, by 54 to 46 percent.
Democracy and A Voter’s Responsibility
“I don’t think parties should play in the other party’s primaries. I think it is a poor practice that I urge both parties to stop.
“It’s happening now with greater frequency, and it undermines democracy to spend money to promote candidates you don’t really want to win,” private equity fund Stagwell Group president Mark Penn told The Epoch Times.
Peen served as former White House pollster to then-president Bill Clinton and as an adviser in his 1996 reelection campaign. He also was the chief strategist to Hillary Clinton in her Senate campaigns and failed 2016 presidential campaign.
Daron Shaw, professor and chair of state politics at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks the tactic departs from traditional negative or strategic campaigning and is unconstructive.
Shaw has years of campaign experience under his belt, having worked as a survey research analyst in several political campaigns and as a strategist in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election campaigns.
“It is a naked effort to brand a candidate, but it is being promoted by a group that doesn’t really want the candidate to win. I don’t think we have a term for it. You might call it sort of second-level strategic campaigning,” Shaw told The Epoch Times.
“A lot of us might have some objections to it. But hey, this is an inevitability of history,” he added.
He said two historic developments set the conditions for candidates and groups to play the tactic.
One is the proliferation of money in political campaigns following the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and the explosion of internet fundraising.
The former opened the door for big interest-group money while the latter led to booming small-donor fundraising.
“Twenty or 25 years ago, money wasn’t this easy, and you wouldn’t have the resources to mess with the other side,” he said.
Another factor is that over the past decades, as American voters pivoted to apply the notion of democracy to the party systems, the parties gradually lost control over the nomination processes, he said.
“We’ve all heard stories of smoke-filled rooms and state party conventions in which the Republican party tried to set up a ticket that’s going to be competitive across multiple races statewide; the Democrats would do the same. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the parties began to surrender that control,” he said.
“When you open your selection process to a more general system that facilitates input by all members, it opens the door to the kind of tactic we are seeing today,” he added.
He suggested that voters take more care to find out the source of a candidate’s positions and history.
In terms of campaign finance disclosures, every state has its own rules. Almost all the Democratic spending mentioned in this article was disclosed to various degrees to the respective state board of elections, except for Illinois.
In Illinois, DGA reportedly spent tens of millions in targeted TV ads to boost Republican candidate Darren Bailey, who eventually captured the nomination with a wide margin. Four years ago, DGA used the same tactic to boost Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives, too.
However, DGA is not obligated to report the spending with the state because the ads do not specifically implore voters to vote for any candidate, according to Illinois State Board of Elections public information officer Matt Dietrich.
“Any voter can file a complaint with our board alleging that the DGA ads are in fact independent expenditures and should be reported as such. No such complaint was filed in 2018, nor has one been filed thus far in this election cycle,” Dietrich wrote in a July 11 email to The Epoch Times.
Though unreported, DGA’s spending was still uncovered by several media outlets with help of ad tracking service providers such as AdImpact.
Costa Panagopoulos, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University in Pennsylvania, told The Epoch Times, “My sense is that this type of strategic activity has been going on for a long time. It just might be more transparent now, given the resources that we have to track spending.”
“At the end of the day, it is the voters’ obligation to consider carefully the candidates they choose. And in that sense, promoting any specific candidacy should not dictate how individual voters vote,” Panagopoulos said.