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Democrats’ risky strategy when it comes to Trump-backed candidates

Democrats want to go up against who they think would be the weakest opponent in November, so they gave election denier Dan Cox a big boost by promoting him non-stop.

In his winning bid for the Maryland gubernatorial nomination, state Delegate Dan Cox received a lot of outside help from a seemingly surprising source. The Democratic Governors Association aired an ad for nearly three weeks ahead of Tuesday’s primary touting the conservative bona fides of Cox, a staunchly conservative state lawmaker running against the more moderate Kelly Schulz, who was a member of retiring Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s Cabinet. 

The strategy was obvious: Democrats helped to make Cox the Republican nominee, figuring he’ll be a considerably weaker candidate in the general election in Maryland this November, where in 2020 former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden by a roughly 2-to-1 margin

If Democrats are responsible for elevating these candidates before they go on to victory, it will come off as clumsy and shortsighted.

The Democratic election meddling recalls a similar incident north across the Mason-Dixon line two months ago, when the Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial nominee-in-waiting, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, ran ads promoting GOP far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano, whom he hoped to have as his opponent in the race for the governorship.

In Arizona, the state Democratic Party, ahead of the Aug. 2 GOP gubernatorial primary, is trying to boost the chances of former local news anchor Kari Lake, who said she would not have certified the 2020 election results and, not surprisingly, has the ex-president’s endorsement. The idea being that, again, Lake would be easier for Democrats to defeat in the November general election. 

It’s a risky strategy, though, and one Democrats may regret adopting. It seems they didn’t learn their lesson back in 1966, when the re-election campaign of Democratic California Gov. Pat Brown helped elevate a political novice because it wrongly assumed the rookie candidate would be an easy mark that November. The beneficiary was the erstwhile actor Ronald Reagan, who went on to use the California governorship to win the White House and turn the whole country sharply to the right. 

Already there are warning signs of a similar outcome for Democrats in 2022. Though polling has been sparse in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, a pair of mid-June surveys showed Shapiro leading Mastriano by only 3  and 4 points, both within the respective margins of error. 

And if the Arizona Republican gubernatorial primary winner is Lake, she will still have a shot at winning despite touting 2020 election-related conspiracy theories, because she’s running in a purple state where Republicans remain strong amid a national political landscape that broadly favors the party due to Biden’s sinking approval ratings, the worst inflation in 40 years and painfully high gas prices

If Democrats are responsible for elevating these candidates before they go on to victory, it will come off as clumsy and shortsighted. Additionally, the approach undercuts Democrats’ moral authority in arguing that politicians on the extreme right are a threat to the republic and otherwise unfit for public office. 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Shapiro now routinely warns about the perils of a November win by Mastriano — a prominent 2020 election denier who was on the Capitol grounds on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that sought to overturn Biden’s White House win. Mastriano has also said he wants to ban abortion, without exception, once a fetal heartbeat is detected. And Mastriano advocates for making all Pennsylvania voters re-register before voting, a legally dubious proposal. But if he was so terrible, why did Shapiro take the chance of helping him get elected?

As Hogan told “Meet the Press” earlier this month: “The Democratic Party is talking about, you know, defending democracy. But they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to promote, you know, conspiracy theory-believing” candidates.

Still, it’s easy to see why Democrats use this tactic. Twenty years ago, the campaign of California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis pumped as much as $10 million into a blitz of television commercials that portrayed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan as changing his conservative positions on abortion, the death penalty and other issues. The  move painted Riordan as a flip-flopping Republican who couldn’t be trusted to serve the interests of his constituents. Riordan’s GOP primary rival, wealthy investor Bill Simon, seeking office for the first time, won his party’s nomination instead. Davis went on the attack in the general election to beat Simon. 

A decade later, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri helped engineer Rep. Todd Akin’s primary victory in a three-person race for the GOP Senate nomination, boosting him with ads calling him Missouri’s “true conservative.” Akin went on to win the Republican nomination with a plurality. His general election campaign then fatally imploded after he said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

To be sure, Republicans are not above meddling in Democratic primaries. The Watergate scandal, which drove President Richard Nixon from office in August 1974, was predicated in part on GOP efforts to hand-pick the weakest Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. 

But opponent meddling has more often than not been a Democratic province despite the dangerous precedent Brown’s campaign set in making Reagan the top choice. During his 1966 California governor’s race, Brown’s team went as far as to leak to a friendly newspaper columnist damaging information about the GOP candidate he perceived to be the strongest: the former mayor of San Francisco, who as a dairy owner decades earlier was convicted of milk price-fixing.

Reagan won the gubernatorial campaign in a romp, setting him on a path to the presidency 14 years later. The 56-year-old episode is a stark reminder to Democrats about the dangers of trying to hand-pick their opponents. If not heeded, Mastriano and Lake in their respective governor’s mansions next January will be at least somewhat Democrats’ fault.