The practice by some campaigns and outside groups this year has divided Democrats, with some in the party complaining that such tactics are risky and could ultimately result in the election of candidates who pose serious threats to democracy.
The approach often involves TV ads suggesting that a far-right GOP candidate is too conservative for a state or district and drawing attention to the candidate’s hard line views on abortion, guns and former president Donald Trump — messages that resonate with conservative primary voters. In other cases, Democrats have run ads attacking GOP candidates seen as tougher to defeat in general elections in ways that could erode support for them in Republican primaries.
Total Democratic spending rises to roughly $53 million when a ninth state, Illinois, is added. There, the Democratic Governors Association and the campaign of Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) spent a combined $34.5 million successfully elevating a GOP candidate who has said it was “appalling” that party leaders in Illinois wanted Trump to concede the 2020 election.
Some Democrats explain their actions by saying they are simply getting a jump on attacking Republican candidates for the general election, while others openly acknowledge trying to secure weaker competition in the fall. But there is little dispute about the effect of altering the Republican primaries in ways that could affect the November matchups.
As primary season nears its Tuesday endpoint, Democrats are giving the strategy one more try in New Hampshire, in two congressional races. In the Republican Senate primary, Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is spending $3.2 million on ads that effectively enhance the candidacy in the GOP primary of retired Gen. Don Bolduc, by portraying his more moderate rival, state Senate President Chuck Morse, who has trailed in GOP primary polls to Bolduc, as beholden to the party establishment.
Bolduc has said he “concurred” with Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and signed a letter along with other retired military leaders claiming without evidence that the FBI and Supreme Court ignored “election irregularities” in 2020. In a statement, Senate Majority PAC spokeswoman Veronica Yoo said the spending was a response to Morse’s attacks on TV against Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), which the group “won’t sit idly by” and tolerate.
In New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, where Rep. Annie Kuster (D) is seeking reelection, a group called Democrats Serve is directing about $100,000 into TV commercials accentuating the conservative credentials of Robert Burns, an otherwise poorly-funded Republican House candidate who acknowledges that President Biden won but has claimed that “a ton” of other unspecified elections were “stolen” in 2020.
In primaries earlier this year, some Democrats spotlighted the conservative bona fides of a GOP candidate for U.S. House in Colorado who convened a state legislative hearing into allegations of 2020 voter fraud despite no evidence of it; a Senate candidate in the same state who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and described the attack as a “peaceful rally”; and a Maryland gubernatorial candidate who tweeted “Mike Pence is a traitor” as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was happening. Their efforts magnified a GOP gubernatorial candidate in Nevada who said Trump “is still our president” months after Biden’s inauguration.
All told, Democrats directly interfered in at least 13 primaries — six gubernatorial races, two Senate contests, and five House campaigns. Their efforts have been successful four times, with the two outstanding contests to be decided on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
In one instance where Democrats helped fund a Nevada organization promoting a right-wing gubernatorial candidate, the organization’s leader, a Republican, told The Post he spent “excess” funds on downballot races Democrats hadn’t intended to finance — including a secretary of state primary in which an election-denying candidate prevailed.
Critics complain these investments undercut the party’s vow to be guardians of democracy. Worse yet, they say, in a difficult political climate for Democrats, they fear it might lead to electing the very candidates they perceive to present the biggest threats to the country.
“This is a deeply, deeply precarious and dangerous strategy to deploy,” said former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, who organized a letter of former Democratic lawmakers criticizing their own party for using the tactic. “It risks elevating these liars and giving them a platform for another three or four months — even if they end up getting beat — to drumbeat their message into the electorate and further erode trust.”
Overall, the money used across the country has been spent largely on TV commercials, the Post analysis shows, at times making larger investments than the GOP candidates were able to scrape together. That happened in at least seven races, including a U.S. House race in California where Democrats spent more than twice the amount that the GOP candidate they were bolstering; in Maryland, where Democrats spent nine times the amount spent by the Republican they sought to help; and in Colorado where Democrats spent at least 30 times as much as the Republican whose message they amplified, according to The Post’s data.
The Post tally of approximate spending comes from examining federal and state campaign finance disclosures along with estimates from ad tracking companies, including AdImpact. In most cases, the figures were confirmed by campaigns or outside organizations.
Defenders note that the tactic has been used in the past by both parties — albeit in more limited circumstances — and point to the strong head winds Democrats faced going into the midterms, saying that the difficult conditions justify seizing every possible advantage. As Democrats’ outlook has improved in recent weeks, some think their efforts could be vindicated if they enable the party to help hold the Senate or compete for a House majority on a shrinking map.
“Given the serious damage Republicans would do with a majority in either chamber of Congress or with the power of a governorship, no one needs to apologize for doing what they think will give Democratic candidates their best chance of winning,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster whose firm conducted surveys in at least one race in which Democrats have meddled.
Some Democrats argue that their efforts merely serve to inform voters about extreme views held by GOP candidates in advance of the general election. In some cases, they are running similar ad campaigns after the primaries have ended.
“In our mind what we have done across the country is start general elections early,” said Marshall Cohen, the political director for the DGA.
About $25 million from the DGA and roughly $9.5 million from Pritzker’s campaign went toward bolstering state Sen. Darren Bailey (R), the candidate who said it was “appalling” that party leaders wanted Trump to concede in 2020, according to ad tracking data obtained by The Post and Pritzker campaign disclosures. Mostly through TV ads, they attacked GOP gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin, the mayor of a Chicago suburb seen by Republicans as more electable. Some of the ads also highlighted Bailey’s conservative record, picturing him together with Trump and saying he “proudly embraces the Trump agenda.”
“Supporting Democratic candidates and causes remains a priority for the governor, and what organizations choose to do with donations is their prerogative,” said Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein in a statement.
Other Democrats see a more dangerous gambit.
“We are playing with fire,” said former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, who opposes using the tactic in the current political environment. “It is a red line. A candidate who is not for having elections anymore has got to be kept out of office. We have to protect the democracy. Democracy is a fragile thing.”
Some Democratic leaders critical of the tactic also say they believe that it will undercut a core message of the party — which Biden recently emphasized — that voters should put their party identity aside to preserve democracy.
“We’re all called, by duty and conscience, to confront extremists who will put their own pursuit of power above all else,” said Biden in a prime time address earlier this month. “Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans: We must be stronger, more determined, and more committed to saving American democracy than MAGA Republicans are to — to destroying American democracy.”
When asked in a recent television interview if the Democratic interference in GOP primaries contradicts that pitch, Vice President Harris declined to answer directly. “I’m not going to tell people how to run their campaigns,” Harris said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Beyond Illinois, Democrats ended up with the far-right Republican opponents they wanted to run against in two other gubernatorial races. In Pennsylvania, the GOP nominee is Doug Mastriano, who was a key part of the effort undo the 2020 election results in the state. The campaign of party nominee Josh Shapiro, amplified his message in the primary.
In Maryland, the GOP gubernatorial beneficiary of Democratic interference, Dan Cox, chartered buses to bring supporters to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and tweeted “Mike Pence is a traitor” as the insurrection was happening.
After spending about $1.7 million to draw attention to Cox’s message during the GOP primary, Democrats in the state are now campaigning against what they say is his extreme record. A recent fundraising appeal from Maryland Senate Democratic Caucus asks for funds to defeat Cox, saying: “We have our work cut out for us if we want to protect Marylanders from the right-wing extremism we see infiltrating neighboring states.”
But in other contests, the outcome was different. In Colorado’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, a group called Democratic Colorado PAC spent about $4 million on TV ads during the Republican primary, with some attacking businessman Joe O’Dea for supporting Democratic priorities including Biden’s infrastructure agenda. O’Dea won the nomination.
“Will the Democrats’ failed smear of Joe O’Dea in the primary be part of our case to ticket-splitting independent voters who decide elections in Colorado? You bet it will,” said Kyle Kohli, a spokesman for O’Dea’s campaign.
“There’s only one reason we spend money and that’s to elect a pro-choice majority,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the DCCC. “There are always debates about tactics but the bottom line is that race is more likely to be won by a Democrat,”
Among some of Maloney’s colleagues, the move did not sit well. In a text, Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), said he was “aghast about what the DCCC did.” He added, “It was morally wrong and tactically off-base at the very time our Select Committee on 1/6 is uncovering and sharing the story of Trump’s plot to overthrow our democracy.”
In California, where there is an all-party primary system, House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, ran ads informing GOP voters that Rep. David G. Valadao (R) voted to impeach Trump. Republican Chris Mathys, who made his loyalty to Trump a central plank of his campaign, came within about 1,300 votes of prevailing over Valadao. Mathys spent just $80,000 on his campaign, according to federal disclosures. The Democratic super PAC spent roughly $200,000.
Abby Curran Horrell, the executive director for the House Majority PAC, said in a statement that the group was founded to do “whatever it takes to secure a Democratic House Majority” and this year they are “taking the necessary steps to fulfill this vision.” The group also noted that they spent about $225,000 on positive ads for the Democratic candidate in the race.
In Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, the Democratic super PAC Patriot Majority spent about $300,000 amplifying Jarome Bell, a GOP candidate who downplayed the insurrectionists, saying they “basically went on a guided tour of the Capitol” and called for an audit of Virginia’s 2020 presidential election results. Bell, who would go on to lose, only spent about $255,000 on his own campaign. One ad called Bell an “America First conservative,” and frequently mentioned Trump, saying Bell “supports Trump’s election audit in all 50 states.”
The Democrat in the race is Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In Nevada, Democrats appeared to lose control of the strategy, providing funds to a group that used them more broadly than intended and put money into promoting an election-denying secretary of state candidate in the swing state.
There, a newly formed group called the Patriot Freedom Fund that was financed in part by an outside group called Home Means Nevada, which was started by former aides to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, issued a mailer urging voters to back GOP secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, who opposed the certification of Biden’s win in the state.
Truman Fleming, listed as the treasurer for Patriot Freedom Fund, told The Post he’s a Republican, and said that he pitched Democrats in the state on teaming up to bolster GOP gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert, a former professional boxer who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and has said that Trump is “still our president.”
In an email, Fleming offered some details about how his newly formed group received $685,000 from Home Means Nevada. “I mean it was pretty easy, I wanted Gilbert and they did too because they thought they had a better chance of beating him vs Lombardo,” Fleming said, referring to Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff who prevailed in the GOP gubernatorial primary contest. “I used the excess of funds to help Marchant and others.”
An official with the Democratic group Home Means Nevada confirmed that the organization hadn’t intended for Fleming to use the money to boost Marchant. Instead it was meant “solely to support their effort to ensure Nevada voters learned more about Joe Lombardo and his position on issues, and that’s all,” said Tia White, who is listed as an officer with Home Means Nevada.
Marchant won the secretary of state primary. During an episode of a podcast hosted by former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, Marchant said like-minded activists need just a handful of victories to have a major impact.
“If we get just a few of the candidates that we have in our coalition, we save our country,” said Marchant.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the first name of Nevada’s governor. His name is Steve Sisolak. It also incorrectly identified Richard Gephardt’s former title. He served as House Democratic leader.