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Democrats weigh possibilities, pitfalls of meddling in GOP primaries after midterm wins

Republican candidate Don Bolduc speaks to attendees
Associated Press-Reba Saldanha
Democrats meddled in some Republican Senate primaries, including in New Hampshire, where a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sought to attack the establishment favorite running against far-right candidate Don Bolduc.

Democrats’ controversial tactic of meddling in Republican primaries largely paid off in the midterms, offering up both a potential roadmap and possible pitfalls for future elections. Various Democratic groups throughout the cycle sought to elevate more far-right or Trump-aligned candidates with the belief they would be easier to defeat in a general election. And while the tactic didn’t work in all GOP primaries, a number of Democratic candidates in races where it did ultimately prevailed over those Republican nominees. 

In Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, for example, House Democrats’ campaign arm elevated Republican John Gibbs over Rep. Peter Meijer. While Gibbs, an election denier, won his primary, he later lost his race to Democrat Hillary Scholten.  

Democrats also meddled in Senate races, such as in New Hampshire where a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sought to attack Republican Chuck Morse in New Hampshire. Morse was seen as the establishment favorite running against GOP contender Don Bolduc.  

A Senate Majority PAC spokesperson said earlier this year that they wouldn’t “sit idly by while Chuck Morse is currently on air attacking our candidate,” but the effort was viewed as a way to boost Bolduc, a far-right candidate. 

Bolduc prevailed in his primary and was later handily defeated by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). 

Democrats also waded into GOP gubernatorial primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois. All three races saw controversial Republican candidates prevail, only to later be beaten in the general elections.  

“I think it helped frame this election and the type of candidates we were up against in such a way that [it] ordinarily would not be framed, and I think different elections at different times call for different measures and different things,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, a senior adviser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  

“And I think that this was the right time to do the right thing to help folks understand how high the stakes were and who and what we were up against.” 

Both Republicans and some Democrats loudly criticized Democratic efforts to engage in GOP primaries this cycle, arguing it made the party look hypocritical in the wake of the Jan. 6 committee hearings spotlighting threats to democracy — particularly after the tactic helped oust Meijer, one of just 10 House Republicans to vote in favor of impeaching former President Trump following the Capitol riot.

Some Democrats also feared the party was playing with fire, elevating far-right candidates closer to possibly getting elected. 

While the tactic is not new — it’s been deployed by both Republicans and Democrats — some GOP strategists warn that the strategy could lead to more partisan gridlock in Congress. 

“When you involve yourself in another party’s primaries, it sharpens the divide. It makes it harder to compromise. It makes it harder to make a deal, because there’s a lot less trust. So there’s an immediate advantage, but you’ve got a long-term disadvantage,” said veteran Republican strategist Keith Naughton. 

But the Democratic groups and campaigns that have engaged in Republican primaries defended the tactic, arguing some of the candidates were already leading in polls among their GOP counterparts or that they were taking steps early to define their potential opponents. 

“What we did was start the general election campaign and demonstrate the clear contrast, the stark differences between he and I,” Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro (D) said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” in May in defense of an ad he ran elevating Republican Doug Mastriano, according to The New York Times.  

David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, argued that while some might disagree with the strategy, they believed Republican primaries didn’t feature many moderate candidates in the mold of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), adding, “I think playing footsie with the Big Lie is the lowest barrier to entry this year in a Republican primary without question.” 

While some Democrats think it’s too early to start thinking about whether to use the same strategy in the next elections, members of the party aren’t closing the door on it just yet. 

“Sure as hell hope they do,” said Democratic strategist Jonathan Kott, a former aide to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “I like winning, and this was a strategy that brought us multiple victories, and everybody said there was going to be a red wave. So if Republicans want to keep putting up extreme candidates, I think it’s the Democrats’ job to show exactly who those people are.” 

But it’s a strategy that could come back to haunt Democrats in the next cycle, during which key centrists like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) as well as those in the House are up for reelection — though the GOP has given no outward signals about whether it plans to engage in those primaries.  

And while GOP operatives disagree with the strategy, some believe it’s a wake-up call for the party to start engaging earlier in its own primaries, saying having a hands-off approach during the primaries hurt Republicans in the general election. 

“I would think that the party should play a little more active role in making sure that we have good candidates in primaries from recruitment to financial support. I don’t think they should put their thumb on the scale and pick winners and losers when there’s more than one good candidate,” said Republican strategist Jason Cabel Roe.  

“But when we have flawed candidates, like we had this cycle, I think we’ve got to intervene where we can to try to affect those outcomes.”

Tags Antjuan Seawright Charles Schumer don bolduc Joe Manchin John Gibbs Josh Shapiro Kyrsten Sinema Liz Cheney Maggie Hassan Nancy Pelosi Peter Meijer

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