Are Dems playing with fire by boosting MAGA GOP candidates?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Dan Cox, a far-right state legislator and enthusiastic endorser of former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, won the Republican primary for Maryland governor last week. The race was the latest contest in an ongoing power struggle within the GOP between more traditional conservatives and Trump loyalists.

Like a number of so-called MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) candidates across the country, Cox received support from a surprising source: the Democratic Party. The Democratic Governors Association spent more than $1 million to broadcast an ad listing Cox’s far-right credentials that, though it had the tone of an attack ad, was designed to make him more appealing to the GOP’s conservative base ahead of the primary. Similar tactics were used to help pro-Trump candidates win gubernatorial primaries in Pennsylvania and Illinois. Democrats also boosted several far-right GOP candidates pursuing seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, though most lost their primary bids.

The reason Democrats are pursuing this strategy, despite their view that Trump and his allies represent an existential threat to American democracy, is the belief that MAGA candidates will be easier to defeat in the midterms than more mainstream Republicans. In addition to denying the results of the 2020 election, candidates like Cox often have far-right views on other issues; outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican himself, dismissed Cox as a “QAnon whack job.”

With inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity dragging down Democratic prospects this year, party operatives are hoping that they can influence GOP primaries to get conspiracy-minded opponents who scare off swing voters in moderate and liberal states.

Though they’ve never pursued it at this scale before, Democrats have successfully used this strategy in the past. In 2012, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, facing a tough reelection bid, spent nearly $2 million to help arch-conservative Todd Akin mount a comeback in the Republican primary. Less than two weeks after becoming the GOP nominee, Akin sparked outrage by making the false claim that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. McCaskill went on to cruise to victory in the general election.

Why there’s debate

Despite the apparent logic behind the approach, a number of elected Democrats have criticized the strategy. They argue that it’s incredibly dangerous for the party to bolster candidates seeking offices they could use to subvert future elections, especially when facing a potential red wave in the midterms. “We should be backing our own frontliners, not gambling on seditionists,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., told the New York Times. Others say the tactic undermines Democrats’ most important midterm message to voters: That the GOP represents a genuine threat to democracy. “You don’t play cute in a crisis,” Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson told Washington Post

Republicans have generally denounced Democrats’ actions as dirty politics. “[The strategy is] everything that the American people hate about politics,” said Joe O’Dea, a moderate businessman who won the GOP Senate primary in Colorado over a far-right opponent boosted by Democrats. Other conservatives say it’s a sign of how desperate Democrats are to hold off a GOP landslide in November and likely had very little impact on how actual votes were cast in primary races.

But defenders of the practice say it’s just another form of the political gamesmanship that every party utilizes to increase its advantage in tight elections. “We can talk all day about whether it’s the moral or right thing to do, but at the end of the day it could be helpful,” Colorado state Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno told the Denver Post.

What’s next

The next major battleground in the fight for control over the GOP’s direction will come next week in Arizona’s primary for governor. Trump-backed candidate Kari Lake faces establishment favorite Karrin Taylor Robson, who has the support of former Vice President Mike Pence and outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. While Democrats don’t appear to have spent substantial funds to boost Lake, they have taken more subtle steps to potentially kneecap her opponent.


The potential rewards are small, but the risks are enormous

“So maybe helping ultra-MAGA or old-school Birch Society-type extremists win Republican nominations marginally increases the odds Democrats can minimize GOP gains this November. But it also significantly increases the odds that if everything goes wrong the Republicans placed in power will be bad people with bad ideas. It’s a risky gamble.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Democrats have every right to take advantage of the unpopularity of MAGA politics

“If they (the GOP) are going to hand a tool to the opposition, or hand an opportunity to the opposition, the opposition should take advantage of that. Just thinking from a purely political tactical standpoint. … If you’re smart in this business, you never take anything for granted. You employ the tools that you can to try to accomplish your goal here, which is to win, … and sometimes those tactics are controversial.” — Jim Carpenter, Democratic strategist, to Denver Post

Democrats are undermining their own efforts to defend democracy

“On the one hand, they’re trying to motivate voters to come to the polls by raising legitimate concerns about what will happen to the country if Republicans retake power. On the other, they’re working behind the scenes to elevate many of the most dangerous Republicans running for office right now. It’s untenable for Democrats to ally themselves with their own executioners.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic

The strategy shows how empty Democrats’ pro-democracy message is

“Once again, liberals swear they care most about reforming democracy. But what they are demonstrating by their actions is a desire for raw power.” — John Fund, National Review

Politics is all about gaming the system for every possible advantage

“In some ways it is politics as usual — even politics as it should be. Democrats believe they are engaging in a strategic maneuver that could increase their chances of winning important elections.” — Peter Grier, Christian Science Monitor

There’s little difference between mainstream and far-right Republicans

“[Democrats] should hone a strategy that does more than simply elevate certain Republicans over the rest of the party simply because Democratic strategists believe voters will find them uniquely dangerous or threatening. That strategy obscures and diminishes the truth staring all of us in the face: that the Republican Party as a whole has radicalized against democracy and can’t be trusted with power.” — Brian Beutler, New York Times

The U.S. needs Republicans willing to defend democracy in power

“The strategy for preserving American democracy cannot simply be for one party to win every election, or else our system of representative democracy falls apart. It’s never going to work in a two-party system. So we need Republican candidates who can be trusted not to execute a fascist takeover of our country if they take power.” — Chris Hayes, MSNBC

Trump-style politics may not be as toxic as Democrats seem to think

“The risky gambit assumes general-election voters will reject candidates who embrace conspiracy theories or lies about the 2020 election. But it could dramatically backfire by vaulting fringe Republicans into national office.” — Sophia Cai, Axios

Democrats are wasting their money trying to influence GOP voters

“Republican primary voters aren’t getting hoodwinked by Democratic ads. … If $1M in Democratic ads were that effective in convincing voters who to support, U.S. politics would look very differently.” — Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images