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Democrats test a midterm strategy: Meddling in GOP governor’s races

Democrats are investing millions to either elevate their preferred competitors in November or weaken their biggest threats.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, candidate for governor, speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia on April 5.Matt Rourke / AP file

Democrats bracing for devastating midterm losses this fall are zeroing in on a strategy that lands them on the battlefield now.  

They are investing millions of dollars to meddle in Republican primaries for governor, attempting to elevate their preferred competitors in November or weaken their biggest threats.   

Next week's messy GOP fight in Pennsylvania is the most blatant example. State Sen. Doug Mastriano is ahead in recent polls — and his would-be Democratic opponent wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way.

Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general running unopposed in his party's primary for governor, is airing an ad that brandishes Mastriano’s conservative credentials, making sure to say a Mastriano victory is a win "for what Donald Trump stands for." That's all but an endorsement in a GOP primary, but it could hurt later in a race where even some Republicans have doubts about Mastriano's electability.

That a Democrat is behind the ad underscores the lengths to which the party will go to engineer an easier general election in what's expected to be a volatile environment this fall.

"Both public and private polling indicate that Doug Mastriano is poised to become the Republican nominee on May 17 — and our campaign is prepared to start the general election now and make sure Pennsylvanians know his real record," Shapiro spokesperson Will Simons said in a statement to NBC News.

Shapiro's efforts mirror those by the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and affiliated groups that could hamstring Republicans in three other states currently led by Democrats.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for governor on April 1.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for governor on April 1.Matt Rourke / AP file

As of Monday, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, the DGA had already spent $4 million on advertising in Illinois, where the organization is attacking Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. Backed by hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, Irvin is seen by many as Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's toughest potential rival, but he must first win a crowded June 28 primary.

In Nevada, the group A Stronger NV, which registered with the state using the DGA's telephone number in Washington, had already spent $500,000 on ads, with at least another $111,000 reserved through the June 14 primary. There, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and allies of his re-election bid are focused hard on Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff who has Trump's endorsement and is leading a crowded GOP field that includes former Sen. Dean Heller and retired professional boxer Joey Gilbert, who has the state party's endorsement

"If he doesn’t make it through the primary, then we’ve knocked out what is seen as the front-runner," a Democrat familiar with the DGA strategy said of Lombardo. 

And although the strategy doesn't involve a primary, an Oregon group backed by DGA donations is preparing a campaign that will brand nonaffiliated gubernatorial hopeful Betsy Johnson — until recently a Democratic state senator — as a conservative.

The early interference amounts to what Democrats see as a viable path to keeping their statehouses blue as they enter a tumultuous campaign season where inflation and gas prices are on the rise and President Joe Biden's favorability is stubbornly low. 

Of the four states where the DGA is playing defense, Pennsylvania and Nevada are expected to be the most competitive this fall, with Illinois and Oregon being harder lifts for Republicans. But, buoyed by a bloc of deep red counties in downstate Illinois, well-funded Republicans have managed to win statewide. Whether the Democrats are pushing the right buttons to be victorious in the general elections remains to be seen.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures — and clearly national Democrats are panicked by the worsening political environment in states run by Democrat governors," said Jesse Hunt, communications director for the rival Republican Governors Association (RGA). "If this spending and future spending is any indication, the DGA knows their governors' failed records won’t hold up under scrutiny this fall and they need to play defense early."

Democrats told NBC News that the intent of the ads is to start defining the candidates they're most likely to face in the fall now, while they are still entrenched in competitive primaries. 

"The DGA is wasting no time in educating the public about these Republicans," said David Turner, the DGA’s communications director. "These elected and formerly elected officials want to deceptively retell their histories, and we're just filling in the gaps."

By contrast, the RGA and affiliated groups have, so far, barely dabbled in Democratic primaries. One exception: Arizona, where the RGA recently launched a six-figure advertising buy targeting Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’s long been seen as her party's most likely candidate for governor. 

Such early gamesmanship is not uncommon in competitive elections. Then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was vulnerable in her 2012 re-election campaign, famously ran ads to elevate Todd Akin, a weaker candidate, in the GOP primary. Akin won the nomination, but his campaign later imploded after inflammatory comments about "legitimate rape" and abortion rights. 

The DGA is particularly focused this year on Illinois, an expensive state to advertise in given the Chicago media market. During his 2018 re-election campaign, then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire, nearly lost the GOP primary to a lesser-known candidate after outraging conservatives by signing a bill that expanded taxpayer-subsidized abortions. The DGA intervened in that race, but much later in the campaign. This time, the DGA began spending in March, with $4 million on ads as of Monday and at least another $267,000 booked before next month’s primary. Pritzker, a free-spending billionaire, has already plowed $90 million into his re-election bid. But Griffin is already bankrolling Irvin to the tune of $45 million, making the mayor a formidable competitor. 

The DGA spots have focused on Irvin's work as a defense attorney, accusing him of "getting rich" by representing violent criminals. 

In a statement, Irvin's campaign said the ads are akin to "a smear campaign" and accused Pritzker of hiding behind the DGA to meddle in the Republican primary. 

Democrats are pushing a similarly weak-on-crime message — the kind more commonly used in GOP ads bashing Democrats — against Lombardo in Nevada.  

"They call him Slick Joe Lombardo, more worried about his public image than public safety," the narrator says in a recent spot from A Stronger NV.

Lombardo also was the target last week when Sisolak, responding to a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft signaling the constitutional right to abortion could soon be overturned, warned that a Republican governor would be a threat to abortion rights he helped put into place. 

In a statement to NBC News, Lombardo’s campaign accused Sisolak — with the help of the DGA — of attempting to "hijack" the Republican governor’s primary, accusing Democrats of attempting to scuttle the campaign of the candidate they fear most in the general election. They say that the DGA’s ad spend now amounts to Democrats having so little faith in Sisolak's re-election chances "that they've resorted to trying to rig the Republican primary election, so that Sisolak doesn’t have to face Sheriff Lombardo in November."

Then there's Oregon, where Democratic Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited and the DGA, according to records kept by the secretary of state, has already pumped more than $65,000 into an organization called Oregonians for Ethics. Worried that Johnson could siphon votes from the Democratic nominee, the group is planning a messaging blitz to highlight Johnson's conservative positions in the Legislature, Oregon Public Radio reported last month.

"Oregon is a place in which they did not expect to be on defense," Johnson strategist Kevin Looper said of the national Democrats assisting the effort. "So they are scrambling."