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Democrats’ long shot: Helping Republican extremists in the spring, hoping to beat them in the fall

Even as national Democrats sounded alarm bells about the threats posed by far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing a hugely risky strategy: promoting some of those same far-right candidates in the Republican primary in hopes that the extremists are easier for the democrats. due in November.

These efforts, most marked in California’s Central Valley, where a Democratic campaign ad criticized Republican Rep. David Valadao for voting to impeach Donald J. Trump, have sparked angry accusations and debate within the party about the dangers and wisdom . of strategy, especially in the midst of the January 6 Committee hearings on the attack on Capitol Hill.

The concern is obvious: In a year when high gas prices and misleading inflation have crushed President Biden’s approval ratings, Republican candidates who may be deemed ineligible by Democrats could well win on the basis of their party affiliation.

“I realize this kind of political game has been around forever, but our country is in a very different place now than it was in previous cycles,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from New York. “It’s outrageous that these Democrat groups would throw money at building up a person they know he wants to bring down this democracy.”

Republican targets asked how they were supposed to oppose his leadership and take tough votes if their former allies in the Democratic Party are on the prowl.

“I voted how I voted because I thought it was important,” Valadao said of his impeachment vote. “But to put us in a place where we’re voting for these things and then trying to use it as ammunition against us in campaigns, and putting people that they potentially see as a threat to democracy in a position where they can become members . of Congress, he tells me they don’t take government seriously.”

The Democratic effort extends far beyond Mr. Valadao’s career. Pennsylvania Democratic Party highlighted state senator Doug Mastriano during his successful pursuit of the Republican nomination for governor, despite his spreading false claims about the 2020 election and his attendance at the January 6 protest behind the White House that immediately preceded the riots on Capitol Hill.

In Southern California, a Democratic candidate for the House, Asif Mahmood, radio waves flooded orange county with ads that framed his candidacy as a contest between him and an anti-abortion conservative, Greg Raths, helping Raths by never mentioning the top Republican in the race, Rep. Young Kim, the incumbent and a much more moderate candidate. Instead, he noted Raths’ support for overturning Roe v. Wade and banning abortion and his affinity with “pro-Trump Republicans,” positions that are as likely to appeal to Republican primary voters as rankle Democrats in a general election. (The effort was unsuccessful: Mrs. Kim stopped Mr. Raths and advanced to the November election against Mr. Mahmood.)

And in Colorado, a shadowy new group called the Colorado Democrats is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the June 28 state primary to convey the conservative views of state representative Ron Hanks, who hopes to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet, an incumbent Democrat. Hanks’ views would be widely shared by Republican primary voters. Not to mention, for now, they were Mr. Hanks brags about marching to the Capitol on January 6, his false claim that those who attacked Capitol Hill were leftist “antifa” and his baseless insistence that President Biden stole the 2020 election.

Alvina Vasquez, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Democratic Party, declined to say who was funding the group, insisting there was nothing wrong with the ads.

“It’s important to highlight who’s running on the Republican side,” he said, adding, “The general election is just around the corner.”

But Ms. Vásquez admitted that the group had only one target: Mr. Hanks, not the most moderate Republican in the primaries, businessman Joe O’Dea. Bennett’s campaign declined to comment.

The Democrats involved acknowledge the game they are playing, but insist that they have a job, to preserve their party’s slim majority in the House, and that they are targeting only those races where extremist candidates cannot prevail in November.

“House Majority PAC was founded on a mission to do whatever it takes to secure a Democratic majority in the House and in 2022, that is what we will continue to do,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of the committee, which is affiliated with the Democratic leadership.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor, defended his campaign ad declaring a victory for Mastriano in the Republican primary for governor as “a victory for what Donald Trump stands for.”

“What we did was start the general election campaign and show the stark contrast, the stark differences between me and him,” Shapiro said on CNN.

But it’s not clear that Democrats can maintain control over what they can unleash, especially in a year when their party’s chairman is suffering from record low approval ratings and inflation has reached rates not seen in 40 years. A Suffolk University poll released Wednesday found Shapiro running just 4 percentage points ahead of Mr. Mastriano in the crucial race for state governor.

No matter how self-confident Democrats sound about their chances against hardline Republicans, the inherent danger of the playing with fire approach revives stomach-churning memories for some Democrats.

After all, they also thought Trump’s 2016 nomination was a sure ticket to Hillary Clinton’s presidency.

Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, arguably created the modern genre of meddling in the other party’s nomination process by running an ad in 2012 that elevated far-right congressman Todd Akin in the Republican primary for Senate.

But Ms McCaskill said the intervening years had raised the stakes too much in all but a few races.

“No one believed, including Donald Trump, that he would be elected president,” McCaskill said. “Campaigns must be very sober in their decision-making. They need to be sure they can prevail if the most extreme candidate is elevated to the nomination.”

Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Michigan, was especially incensed that the House Democratic majority had spent nearly $40,000 in the Bakersfield and Fresno, California, media markets. Broadcast an ad punishing Mr. Valadao for his impeachment vote, while promoting his opponent as “a true conservative.”

It’s impossible to say what impact the announcement had, but with votes in California’s 22nd Congressional District still counted, Valadao clings to a 1,400-vote lead over Mathys for the final spot in the November runoff.

“Pro-Trump Republican Chris Mathys: Military Veteran, Local Businessman,” the Democratic ad shouted. “Or the politician David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump. Republicans: It’s time to decide.”

The ad aired in the run-up to the Jan. 6 hearings, which have riled up Republicans who stood up to Trump. But by using those votes against those Republicans for political gain, said Meijer, another of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting riots on Capitol Hill, Democratic campaigns had trivialized the issue, even when the audiences were raising it. as a deadly threat to the American experiment.

And that, Meijer said, made it easier for Republicans to dismiss the hearings as political theater.

Meijer, whose primary against a Trump-backed opponent looms on Aug. 2, condemned the Democratic dissonance as “deep moralizing amid normal hypocrisy.” Already, he said, the loudest voices are promoting his main opponent, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official. who once accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager of performing satanic ritualsthey are the Democrats, not the Republicans.

For Democrats, the clear precedent is McCaskill’s near-legendary ad indirectly touting Akin as his opponent in his 2012 re-election campaign. Two other Republicans in that year’s primaries would have been far more formidable opponents in a state Republican-leaning, with Barack Obama on the ballot for re-election. Mr. Akin, by comparison, was underfunded, undisciplined and, he said, “a little weird.”

the the words in the ad could have been threatening for general election voters, but Mrs. McCaskill’s list of details against Mr. Akin, read in friendly, singsong narration, was music to the ears of Republican primary voters: “a crusader against a more big,” with a “pro-family agenda. ” that would ban many forms of contraception. “And only Akin says that President Obama is a complete threat to our civilization.”

“Todd Akin, the real conservative from Missouri,” the ad read, using an embarrassed pause, before finishing, “is too conservative.”

Mr. Akin won the Republican primary with a majority vote and then lost to Ms. McCaskill by almost 16 percentage points.

Ms. McCaskill said that in some districts, such as Valadao, where voters lean heavily Democratic, the tactic remains sound. But she, she added, the stakes are much higher in 2022 than there was a decade ago.

“I decided internally that I agreed with the idea that it could be responsible for him becoming a United States senator,” he said of Mr. Akin, adding that he could not have made the same calculation for some of the current . harvest of republicans.

Beyond individual candidates, the Republican leadership has changed, McCaskill added. His gamble that Mr. Akin’s undisciplined propensity to speak out paid off when Mr. Akin famously said that victims of sexual assault don’t get pregnant because “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has different forms.” trying to turn all of that off.” .”

Beyond the damage caused by those words, Mr. Akin’s own party made him an outcast, shunning him and ensuring his defeat. Republican leaders cannot be counted on to eliminate any candidate this campaign season, he said.

Ms. Rice made the same comment, adding that every dollar spent meddling in a Republican primary is a dollar not spent directly helping Democratic incumbents in jeopardy.

“We should back our own leaders,” he said, “not bet on the rioters.”

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