During the chaotic 2016 Republican presidential primary, it was something of an open secret that many Democrats were rooting for Donald Trump to emerge as the GOP nominee. Trump, the story went, would be a complete disaster as a general election candidate and would make Hillary Clinton's inevitable ascent to the presidency even more of a sure bet.
"Trump is so unpopular, so unpredictable, such anathema to how politics is run that he surely would be a terrible general election electorate, they argue," Dara Lind wrote for Vox in March 2016, summing up the sentiment among some Democratic activists and voters.
But, Lind presciently added, be careful what you wish for: "If you are someone who does not want Donald Trump to become president of the United States, stop rooting for him to get closer to becoming president of the United States. Much as people had to grapple with the notion that Trump can get the nomination, they must also grapple with this fact: There is a chance that he will win the presidency."
Six years later, Democrats apparently doubled down on that same shaky strategy to help nominate a vocal Trump supporter in the Pennsylvania governor's race. State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R–Fayetteville) participated in the January 6 protest in Washington D.C.—though he alleged he left prior to the violent riot, photos from the scene show Mastriano beyond police barricades (no evidence has emerged showing that he entered the building itself). Mastriano's refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania has stoked worries that he would refuse to certify a prospective Democratic win in 2024 if he wins this year's election. (In Pennsylvania, elections are overseen by the secretary of state, a position appointed by the governor).
On Tuesday, Mastriano triumphed in a three-way race to claim the Republican gubernatorial nomination, putting him one step closer to the governor's mansion. And he did it with help from his Democratic opponent in the general election.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro was running unopposed for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania, but his campaign aired several ads during the primary season anyway. One of those ads, which hit the airwaves earlier this month, was effectively an ad for Mastriano—it called the state senator "one of Donald Trump's strongest supporters" and focused on hot-button issues for conservative voters, including Mastriano's stance on abortion, which he wants to ban, and his leading role in the GOP's attempt to reverse President Joe Biden's win in 2020.
Though it's framed as an attack ad, it was also a clever attempt to boost Mastriano's status among Pennsylvania conservatives.
"Shapiro going up on air to help Mastriano win GOP primary," wrote Mark Harris, a Republican political consultant working for a rival primary campaign, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. "Tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Dems know Mastriano is their best chance to win."
Mastriano's grassroots campaign struggled to raise enough money to advertise across all of Pennsylvania. Through the end of the first quarter of the year, his campaign had barely $1 million on hand, while Shapiro's campaign was sitting on a $16 million war chest. Why not use some of that money to help an unelectable Republican win the nomination? What could go wrong?
"I'm going to have to send him a thank you card" Mastriano said of the Shapiro-funded ad, according to LNP's Brad Bumsted.
While Shapiro was boosting Mastriano's message, some Pennsylvania Republicans were working to stop Trump's preferred candidate from winning. Over the past two weeks, other candidates dropped out and endorsed Lou Barletta, a former U.S. congressman and Trump ally who was seen as a less extreme alternative to Mastriano. Think of it as another parallel to 2016, when there was a last-ditch attempt to stop Trump by trying to convince mainstream Republicans to hold their noses and vote for Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas).
Like in 2016, that effort failed. Barletta finished a distant second to Mastriano.
As soon as Mastriano had locked up the Republican nomination on Tuesday night, Shapiro's campaign executed phase two of the plan. In a statement, Shapiro attacked Mastriano as "a dangerous extremist" who seeks to "restrict the right to vote and spread conspiracy theories." You can expect to hear a lot more of that over the next five months.
Getting Mastriano on the top of the GOP ticket in November might be exactly what Democrats in Pennsylvania need to avert a disastrous election cycle. Or it might allow a 2020 election-denier to ride a national Republican wave into the state's highest office. Trump lost Pennsylvania by a scant 80,000 votes in 2020—no one should be confident that Mastriano's chances are nil.
Voters ought to view Mastriano's opinions about the 2020 election as disqualifying. But if Democrats like Shapiro are going to position themselves as defenders of democracy standing against Republican attempts to undermine elections, they really ought to not help those same Republicans get elected.
At best, such cynical politicking makes it more difficult to take seriously their claims about the unique threat posed by Trump-endorsed Republicans. At worst, it could help bring about the very national crisis they claim to be trying to prevent.