Huddled with top Democratic donors in a recent meeting, party operatives got an uncomfortable question. Democrats had been spending millions of dollars in Republican primaries elevating extreme candidates who falsely insist Donald Trump won the 2020 election, in hopes of facing weaker opponents in the general election.
But, one donor asked, what happens if one of these far-right Republicans actually wins?
Sam Cornale, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, made no apologies, according to two people who were in the room and described the exchange to NBC News. The goal is to win elections, he and other Democratic panelists argued, and this is a way to make it happen.
“It’s politics,” Cornale told dozens of top donors at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Cornale works hand-in-hand with White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who ran Biden’s 2020 campaign and oversees his political office.
The raw political calculus that underpins the Democrats’ midterm election strategy is at odds with President Joe Biden’s core political message that democracy is in peril. He’s dedicated his presidency to battling “MAGA Republicans” and working across the aisle to preserve the “soul of the nation.”
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden said earlier this month in a speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Yet even as Democrats plowed money into helping election-denying candidates advance through Republican primaries, the White House stayed conspicuously silent about a practice that risks undermining the democratic traditions that Biden has vowed to protect. Biden appears to have accepted the tradeoff involved: If boosting election-denying candidates saves even a few Democratic congressional seats, it’s worth the risk.
Given opportunities to repudiate a strategy that has divided the party, the White House has refused. NBC News asked the White House what Biden thinks of the practice and whether he’s ever voiced qualms about it. Officials declined to answer.
In a recent interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “I’m not going to tell people how to run their campaigns.”
Some Democrats see in the White House’s approach a willingness to prioritize winning over principle. They want a more full-throated repudiation of the practice from Biden on down and question the bet that MAGA Republicans are easier to defeat — elections are notoriously tough to predict. During the 2016 presidential campaign, many Democrats saw Trump as the weakest and, hence, most desirable opponent in the general election. They paid dearly for misreading the public mood.
Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said, “Democrats and President Biden have made defending democracy a primary issue going into the midterms. They potentially fall on a double-edged sword when you make it your issue and then you promote election liars.”
Roemer suggested that Democratic House members withhold dues to their main campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in protest. (The DCCC did not make its chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, available for comment.)
One Democratic senator, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said the strategy “is just not wise.”
“The consequences of getting it wrong is you help facilitate people who are actively undermining democracy,” the senator added. “We are better off being who we are and being for what we’re for and supporting our candidates.”
Defending the strategy, party officials told donors at the meeting earlier this month that the more moderate GOP candidates being targeted for defeat don’t necessarily deserve any sympathy, attendees said. One Democratic donor who was in the room summarized the argument as: “It’s not like we’re taking out the Baby Jesus.”
Democratic consultants contend the “moderate” GOP alternatives sometimes hold views that are indistinguishable from those of the pro-Trump conservatives, justifying attempts to bounce them out of the race. In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro spent hundreds of thousands of dollars elevating Doug Mastriano — an election denier who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 but has denied wrongdoing — over Lou Barletta in the GOP primary. One ad said a Mastriano victory would be a “win for what Donald Trump stands for.” But Barletta, too, has long aligned himself with Trump’s agenda.
The tactic worked. In the general election, Shapiro will face Mastriano, who was endorsed by Trump. Polls show Shapiro leads by nearly seven points.
“If stupid people crave information about stupid candidates, we ought to supply them with the information,” James Carville, a top adviser in Bill Clinton’s 1992 successful presidential campaign, said in support of the Democrats’ practice. “We’re giving ourselves the best chance to win. And that’s what a campaign does. You try to get your horse in the most favorable position.”
As the primary season played out, Democratic campaigns and various arms of the party spent millions of dollars in at least a dozen Republican primary races for gubernatorial, Senate and House seats. As with Mastriano, the aim was to showcase the candidates’ pro-Trump credentials in hopes that GOP voters would take note and make them the party nominees. Then, when the general election rolls around in November, Democrats would face candidates whose extreme ideology would render them unelectable, as party operatives see it.
Although Democrats didn’t get every far-right opponent they paid for, the primary meddling was partly successful. Six of the Trumpier candidates whom Democrats elevated went on to capture the GOP nomination — two running for House seats, one for a Senate seat, and three for gubernatorial offices, including Mastriano.
Polling and nonpartisan campaign analysis currently shows them all trailing their Democratic rivals. Yet upsets are common in politics, as some critics of the Democrats’ practice observe.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the House Jan. 6 committee and a staunch foe of Trump, said: “For me, putting it all on the line with the Jan. 6 committee, it’s tough to swallow people saying that the No. 1 fight is democracy survival and then playing with fire here. It may help retain more seats, but there are going to be two or maybe three of these election-denier candidates who actually win. And that’s really dangerous.”
The Democrats’ plan, Kinzinger added, “strikes me as cynical.”
In some instances, Democrats promoted far-right candidates to avoid running against more moderate Republicans who took principled stands that may have cost them their political careers.
In Michigan, for example, the DCCC spent $425,000 on ads with the effect of bolstering the more conservative candidate. An ad that ran during the Republican primary said that GOP candidate for Congress John Gibbs was “hand-picked by Trump” and mentioned that he had called Trump “the greatest president.” Those points amounted to an implicit rebuke of Gibbs’ opponent, Rep. Peter Meijer, who was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 riot.
Gibbs went on to win and now faces Democrat Hillary Scholten in the fall election. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan analyst, considers the race to be competitive, with Scholten having an edge.
“Without that [DCCC] money spent, it’s very likely Peter could have skated through that primary,” said Kinzinger, who is retiring from Congress at the end of his term. In voting for impeachment, Meijer “made the tough, right decision and he paid the ultimate political price for it.”
The argument leaves some Democrats unmoved. “He [Meijer] probably votes against us on 99 things out of 100,” said Carville. “If we’ve got a chance for that seat, I’m sorry. The Democrats are in a much better position to pick up that seat now than if Peter Meijer won that primary.”
“Could it backfire?” he added. “Yeah. But I don’t think it will. It’s an acceptable risk worth taking.”