Throughout the 2022 primary season, groups affiliated with the Democratic Party funded ads to boost immoderate Republican candidates. The goal was to boost the least moderate candidates in the hopes that they would be easier to beat in a general election. Now that Americans have voted, it looks like the gamble worked. Democrats exercised their free speech, but did they set a good precedent?
Typically, ads paid for by Democratic groups would take one of two strategies: Some attacked more moderate candidates, like a New Hampshire ad that labeled Republican Chuck Morse a "sleazy politician" hand-picked by "Mitch McConnell's Washington establishment." Others were more subtle, like a Maryland ad blasting gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox as former President Donald Trump's "handpicked candidate" who is "fighting to end abortion in Maryland" and "will protect the Second Amendment at all costs, refusing to support any federal restrictions on guns." In the latter case, the ad sought to highlight Cox's conservative bona fides, slyly making him more appealing to Republican voters.
In New Hampshire, the $3.2 million ad buy against Morse was funded by Senate Majority PAC, a political action committee associated with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.). Morse narrowly lost the Republican Senate primary to Don Bolduc, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general. Bolduc claimed that Trump won in 2020, though he notably reversed position just two days after winning the primary. Later in the campaign, Bolduc endorsed the long-discredited rumor that schools were putting out litter boxes to accommodate students who identify as furries. Bolduc later said he was merely repeating what he had heard from "parents and kids" but also insisted that it was the school's responsibility to "prove" it was not true.
Elsewhere in New Hampshire, a PAC that backs Democrats with public service backgrounds spent nearly $100,000 on ads proclaiming Republican House primary candidate Robert Burns "the ultra-conservative candidate" who "follows the Trump playbook." Burns defeated the more moderate George Hansel by just over a percentage point in the primary.
The Maryland ad boosting Cox cost the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) $1.2 million, more than twice what Cox had raised to that point. Notably, the state's outgoing Republican governor, Larry Hogan, declined to endorse Cox and spoke positively of Libertarian candidate David Lashar.
In May, while competing in Pennsylvania's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro ran an ad blasting Republican candidate Doug Mastriano as "one of Donald Trump's strongest supporters." Mastriano also promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and once pledged to decertify Pennsylvania's results; as governor, he would have the power to pick Pennsylvania's secretary of state and influence future elections. The ad cost $1.2 million, more than Mastriano had raised to that point, and he won the primary handily.
In Michigan's 3rd district, first-term Rep. Peter Meijer faced a Republican primary challenger, John Gibbs, who had spread conspiracy theories about not only the 2020 election but also John Podesta and Democrats in general. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent $435,000 on an ad labeling Gibbs "too conservative" and "handpicked by Trump." Meijer narrowly lost to Gibbs in August; almost immediately, the FiveThirtyEight forecast for the seat went from 90-10 odds of a Republican win to 55-45 Democrat.
In fact, every Republican candidate that Democrats spent money on beat a more moderate Republican in the primary and then lost to a Democrat in the general election.
That said, campaign spending is protected speech and Democrats are not capable of mind control: Every extreme candidate who won a Republican primary was chosen by Republican primary voters. Those voters are to blame for selecting candidates that not enough of their neighbors would support.
But regardless of its strategic soundness, boosting Trumpists nonetheless conflicted with what Democrats have said for years about Trump and his followers. "MAGA Republicans," President Joe Biden warned, "represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic."
After years of claiming that money in politics is bad and Trumpists will destroy America, Democrats spent millions to boost the people they are most afraid of.
Well, not all of them: Earlier this year, 35 Democratic former elected officials condemned the strategy as "destructive" and "risky and unethical."