Why the Democrats supported extreme Trumpists in the Republican primaries

The Democratic Party has been secretly boosting far-right candidates such as Dan Cox and Doug Mastriano, who believe the 2020 election was stolen and that climate change is a hoax

Republican primaries
Former president Donald Trump applauds Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at a rally in Wilkes-Barre on September 3.ED JONES (AFP)
Miguel Jiménez

John Gibbs claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager engaged in satanic rituals involving bodily fluids. Doug Mastriano went to Washington on January 6, 2021, the day of the assault on Capitol Hill, along with dozens of supporters on buses he had chartered. Darren Bailey believes the 2020 election was stolen, the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax and has argued that the Holocaust is nothing compared to abortion. Retired General Don Bolduc is a conspiracy theorist who advocates abolishing the FBI. Dan Cox compared the FBI search of former US president Donald Trump’s Florida home to the actions of the Stasi, the East German intelligence service. All five have something in common: they won the Republican primaries with the support of the Democratic Party.

Democrats have been supporting the most extreme candidates in the Republican primaries in the hope that they will drive away more moderate voters at the November 8 midterm elections. According to the campaign finance tracker Open Secrets, Democratic Party-aligned political action committees (PACs), political groups and nonprofits have spent at least $44 million on political ads for these candidates. This strategy is based on the belief that it will be easier for the Democratic Party to defeat politicians who support conspiracy theories and hard-line views on abortion.

But not all Democrats agree with this tactic. On the one hand, supporting, however covertly, candidates who deny Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election undermines Biden’s message that extreme Trumpists are a threat to democracy. On the other hand, they are playing with fire. If the Democrats lose in the midterms, candidates with far-right radical views may be elected as governors, senators and House representatives.

In a statement, 35 former Democratic elected officials criticized the strategy: “As members of the Democratic Party, we are dismayed by the recent practice of Democratic organizations intervening in Republican primaries to promote candidates who deny the outcome of the last presidential election.” It added: “It is risky and unethical to promote any candidate whose campaign is based on eroding trust in our elections.”

The Democrats do not overtly support the Trumpist candidates, but rather pay for political ads that appear to criticize them, but in fact, boost their credentials among Republicans. In the case of John Gibbs, who won the primary for the 3rd Congressional District in west Michigan, the Democrats said he was “too conservative,” “endorsed by Donald Trump” and supported a “crack down on immigration” – points that are likely to appeal to a Republican. The Democrats believed Gibbs would be easier to defeat in the midterm elections than Peter Meijer, one of the few Republicans who supported Trump’s impeachment.

The Democrats also intervened in the election of Don Bolduc, who won the Republican primaries on Tuesday to run for senator for New Hampshire, a state which is evenly split between Democrat and Republican voters. Bolduc is one of the retired generals who signed a letter supporting false claims that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. He is so extreme that he has even called fellow Republican Chris Sununu a “communist sympathizer.”

Robert Burns, a right-wing candidate aligned with Trump, won the Republican primary in New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District on Tuesday. Like Gibbs and Bolduc, he also benefitted from spending by a Democratic group.

New Hampshire Republican US Senate candidate Don Bolduc smiles during a primary night campaign gathering.
New Hampshire Republican US Senate candidate Don Bolduc smiles during a primary night campaign gathering.Reba Saldanha (AP)

But it is in Illinois, where Democrat spending has been most decisive. In the Illinois gubernatorial primary, Democratic governor, billionaire JB Pritzker, spent more than $30 million to support the ultra-conservative, Trump-endorsed candidate Darren Bailey. Bailey will face Pritzker at the midterms, but he has far less chance of beating him than Richard Irvin, a moderate Republican who had the backing of billionaire Ken Griffin, owner of the Citadel hedge fund.

Doug Mastriano won the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor, with the support of the Democrats. In 2021, Mastriano mobilized his supporters to take part in the January 6 Trump rally that led to the assault on the US Capitol. He is also a climate change denier and opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and child adoption by same-sex couples. Old photos of the retired military officer also show him dressed in the Confederate uniform. His Democratic rival, Josh Shapiro, paid for ads saying that a victory for Mastriano in the primaries would be “a triumph for what Trump stands for.” The Democrats saw him as an easy-to-beat rival, but he is a charismatic character and, although he is down in the polls, there is a real risk that he could end up as governor.

Another election denier, Dan Cox, won the Republican primary for governor of Maryland. On the day of the Capitol attack, Cox tweeted: “Pence is a traitor,” referring to former vice president Mike Pence, who was preparing to certify Joe Biden’s victory at the polls in the 2020 presidential election. He said the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate was “nothing short of communist Stasi police state tactics,” and promised to empower state police and Maryland Guard to “stand against all rogue actions of this out of control tyrannical Biden administration” if elected. The Democrats launched ads describing him as “100% pro-life” and a defender of the Second Amendment, which establishes the right to bear arms – two issues that Republicans support.

Democrats tried the same strategy in half a dozen other Republican primaries, but the candidates were too extreme even for Republican voters. The Democrats are hoping to follow the precedent set by former senator Claire McCaskill, who, when up for election in Missouri, secretly supported the most conservative Republican candidate in the primary: Todd Akin. When asked in the middle of the election campaign, if he was against abortion in cases of rape, Akin replied: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” At that point, McCaskill knew she had won.

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