During the Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania, a political ad ran against Doug Mastriano, accusing the state senator of wanting to ‘ban abortion’, being ‘one of Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters’. who “led the fight to audit the 2020 election”.
However, the ad was not funded by any of Mastriano’s Republican opponents – often referred to as a “far-right” conservative – but by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
According to some political observers, while this may sound like typical negative political publicity, it’s actually not meant to hurt Mastriano’s chances against his Republican rivals. Instead, it is intended to boost his profile and conservative credentials with the Republican Party base.
It’s apparently part of a Democratic strategy to help those seen as hardline Republican candidates secure their Republican party’s nomination. (Which Mastriano won.)
The Democrats’ hope is that these extreme Republican candidates would be much easier for Democrats to beat in the November general election. But the strategy has raised concerns about its effectiveness and whether it could have unintended consequences.
“Incredibly dangerous game”
Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist who worked on the campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, cautions against that.
“It’s a high tension act and an incredibly dangerous game,” she said in an email to CBC News.
The difficult part is knowing what message makes a candidate too toxic for the GOP primary, she said. The dangerous part is that “it could easily backfire and result in the election of another extremist who will try to overthrow the next election.”
“Democrats should be focused on their own primaries, and in general, on effectively contrasting our positive history with their madness.”
Yet this strategy seems to play out in a handful of races in the United States
In Illinois, for example, the state’s Democratic Governor JB Pritzker and the Democratic Governor’s Association (DGA) reportedly spent about US$34 million on the Republican primary, according to Politico.
Their goal, apparently, in the gubernatorial race is to stop Republican Richard Irvin, who would become Illinois’ first black governor if he wins the general election.
Democrats are reportedly afraid to face Irvin in a general election, so they’ve run ads against him that they say will make him less palatable to Republican primary voters.
An ad launched in March by the Democratic Governor’s Association criticized Irvin’s past work as a defense attorney. But at the same time, in what could be seen as reverse political psychology, the DGA released additions describing Irvin’s Republican opponent Darren Bailey as “too conservative for Illinois,” a message that would actually resonate with the Republican base.
Asked about this apparent strategy to get some Republicans nominated, spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said in an email to CBC News, “The DGA is wasting no time in educating the public about these Republicans.”
“These elected officials and former elected officials want to tell their story in a misleading way and we are just filling in the gaps.”
Meanwhile, in Colorado, a Democratic super PAC, or political action committee, called Democratic Colorado, has also been accused of interfering in that state’s Republican primary. He allegedly spent more than $1 million running ads to attack Senate candidate Joe O’Dea, who has a history of political donations to Democratic candidates, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
His Republican opponent, Ron Hanks, whom Democrats seem more eager to face in the general election, is also being called “too conservative for Colorado” bids with Republican voters.
Additionally, in California, the Democrat-affiliated House Majority PAC ran ads that appear designed to boost the chances of Republican Chris Mathys, who is also considered a far-right candidate, and who is referred to in the ads as “true conservative, 100% pro-Trump and proud.”
“Vote their hearts, not their heads”
The primaries primarily attract party “wings,” or the party base that is often drawn to more extreme candidates, said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.
“In primaries, voters tend to vote their hearts, not their heads,” she said. “That’s why extreme candidates, whether left or right, tend to have a pretty decent chance in the primaries, even if they’re going to lose the general election.”
It’s also why she thought the Democratic strategy could prove effective in a general election.
“I generally thinks that the crazier the contestant, the easier it is to beat them. There is still a center in American politics. It’s very small, but it’s crucial,” Kamarck said.
That strategy certainly paid off for former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who admitted helping Republican Todd Akin win his primary in 2012 so she could face him.
“I told my team that we needed to put Akin’s ultra-conservative good faith in an ad – then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not vote for him. And we had to get rid of that publicity,” she wrote in 2015 for Politico in an article titled, “How I Helped Todd Akin Win — So I Could Beat Him Later.”
But in a recent interview with NPR, McCaskill said there are “certainly risks” with this type of strategy. She said she now fears there won’t be Republican leaders to stand up to an extremist candidate like there was when she ran against Akin, who died last fall at 74. . His campaign was sunk when he came under fire from both parties after speaking out about how “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy.
“A Big Spend of Money”
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said he thinks with limited financial resources, ads to get some Republicans elected may not be the best use of campaign money.
“It’s a huge waste of money when you have to defend [Democratic] candidates,” he said.
Sheinkopf said that while politics is one thing, so is a functioning government, and the risk of bringing more extreme politicians to power also risks adding more stalemate.
John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of Defending Negativity: Attacks on Ads in Presidential Campaigns, said the belief that extreme candidates will have a harder time running in the general election is likely true.
But Geer said that in today’s American political scene, it’s much more about participation than about converting the undecided.
“So if you have an extreme candidate, does that actually give the base a stronger reason to come forward and question this long-standing approach, the more extreme candidates have a harder time.”