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Image: Ron Hanks
Ron Hanks attends a rally at the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver, on April 5, 2022.Hyoung Chang / Denver Post via Getty Images file

Democrats boost some GOP election deniers in primaries

Those involved say efforts are to define the general election conversation early, but it also helps more favorable opponents.

By and

Democrats have castigated Republican officials and candidates for spreading lies that the 2020 election was illegitimate. But in at least three cases, they've been spending money that could boost candidates who echo those lies in their GOP primaries — in an apparent effort to have their party face a weaker GOP nominee for the general election.

These ads portray a vote in favor of impeaching former President Donald Trump for inciting the 2021 attack on the Capitol as a negative. Or, they call hard-right Republican candidates "too conservative," highlighting qualities that could resonate with a GOP primary electorate — the newest example coming this week in Colorado's Senate race.

Much of it follows an age-old strategy that is aimed at helping to endear one candidate to more partisan primary voters, hoping to avoid a more moderate candidate winning a primary and becoming a tougher general election opponent.

"It’s a roundabout way of saying — we think the most conservative candidate is the weakest candidate," said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and Governors Editor for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

"These are the kinds of ads these far-right candidates would run if they had money.”

Democrats who have been involved in such efforts insist they are not seeking to meddle in the opposition’s primary, only getting involved early to define candidates as extreme ahead of the fall.

The bottom line is: This Democratic spending may ultimately boost the electoral chances of Republicans who promote lies about the 2020 election.

Here's a look at the three races where this dynamic is playing out:

Colorado Senate

In the most recent example, a new Democratic group just dropped $800,000 on the airwaves in one week, per the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, and began running an ad focusing on state Rep. Ron Hanks.

“How conservative is Ron Hanks? Hanks was rated one of the most conservative members in the state House. He says Joe Biden’s election was a fraud, Hanks wants to ban all abortions and he wants to build Trump’s border wall,” the ad’s narrator says.

“Ron Hanks — too conservative for Colorado.”

Hanks is running far to the right of construction business-owner Joe O’Dea in the GOP primary. On his website, Hanks claims that “our elections are not secure,” said he marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and he tried to get the state to audit the 2020 election vote.

In an email, a spokesperson for Democratic Colorado, the group behind the ad, bucked the argument that the intended effect is to boost Hanks.

“Hanks is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and the leading candidate of the GOP grassroots—that’s why we’re focused on warning voters about him," spokesperson Alvina Vasquez said.

But the ad’s message — spotlighting Hanks’ conservative record as voters cast their ballots in the state’s primarily vote-by-mail primary — mimics that of past attempts to meddle in an opposing party’s primary.

Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race

This is one example where Democrats ultimately got the candidate they were hoping for — state Sen. Doug Mastriano. He's played a central role in the state GOP's attacks on the 2020 election and was present at the the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Shortly before the GOP primary, where Mastriano surged and ultimately finished on top of the crowded field, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro's gubernatorial campaign launched an ad focusing on Mastriano specifically. It noted how he wants to "outlaw abortion" and "end vote by mail," adding that he "led the fight to audit the 2020 election" and that "if Mastriano wins, it's a win for what Donald Trump stands for."

Shapiro spokesman Will Simons told NBC News in a statement last month that "our campaign is prepared to start the general election now and make sure Pennsylvanians know his real record."

But it's the kind of messaging that could have also served to endear Mastriano to conservative primary voters still deciding their vote.

California's 22nd Congressional District

House Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Democratic leadership, involved itself in this competitive House district in the Central Valley, elevating Former Fresno City Councilman Chris Mathys, a Republican who has repeated Trump's election lies.

Mathys took on GOP Rep. David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, calling Valadao's impeachment vote a "betrayal." Mathys also told the Bakersfield Californian that Trump would have won the 2020 election if voters were "properly counted."

Ahead of this week's primary, House Majority PAC launched a TV spot and a digital ad painting Mathys as the Republican most strongly aligned with Trump, and highlighting David Valadao’s impeachment vote.

It's still not clear if the group's efforts to boost Mathys were successful. The NBC News Decision Desk has not yet called the race. Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas currently leads overall with 47 percent of the vote, followed by Valadao at 26 percent and Mathys at 19 percent. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.