In July, Just weeks before Arizona’s gubernatorial primary, the state’s Democratic Party issued an unusual press release. Targeting a Republican primary, the news slammed the outgoing GOP governor’s handpicked successor, Karrin Taylor Robson, a real estate developer, in favor of her opponent Kari Lake, a former television news anchor backed by President Donald Trump.
The Democrat publication dryly thanked Robson “for her years of financial support to help elect Democratic candidates up and down,” and described her previous attacks on Lake for giving to the Democrats as “hypocrisy.” Arizona Democrats insisted they were not spending on the race, but the email was widely interpreted mainstream media and conservative outlets as an attempt to meddle in the Republican primary to boost Lake. Two weeks later, Lake moved up the polls and won the Republican gubernatorial primary in early August.
Last week’s gubernatorial election was so close that it took nearly a week to count enough ballots to call it. On Monday, Lake lost the general election to Democratic nominee Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs by less than a percentage point.
“The leadership of the Democratic Party should treat the rise of the authoritarian right as a real threat, not a topic for discussion.”
The Arizona race was one of several major primaries in which national Democrats have backed Republicans they considered more or less ineligible — candidates like Lake, who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election. In an expected brutal midterm cycle, promoting extreme candidates, the theory goes, could help Democrats do better in the general election.
The strategy eventually worked in Arizona. But even after the loss, Lake and some of the other extremist Republican candidates exceeded expectations. For some political observers working with Democrats, the Arizona race shows how dangerous the strategy could be in fueling anti-democracy sentiment and fueling polarization.
“The leadership of the Democratic Party should treat the rise of the authoritarian right as a real threat, not an issue for discussion,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said in a statement to The Intercept. “Helping the MAGA Republicans win their primary was reckless and irresponsible. I hope it doesn’t come back and bite us all.”
Not every election in which the Democrats have used this strategy has ended as close as in Arizona. The party achieved resounding victories in gubernatorial elections in Maryland, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and a crucial Senate election in New Hampshire.
Ken Snyder, a national Democratic campaign adviser with Pennsylvania experience who has had “amazing success” in Pennsylvania and Illinois, said, “This time the tactic worked more often than not.”
At races where The move clearly worked, with Democrats spending millions promoting Republican candidates. Although Democrats did not spend supporting Lake in the Arizona race, they did spend more than $53 million to support Republican lead candidates in races in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to support Nevada.
The Democratic Governors Association spent $2 million to boost Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox’s primary campaign in Maryland in a race that Democratic nominee Wes Moore comfortably won.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro’s campaign raised eyebrows when it spent $840,000 on ads highlighting Republican Doug Mastriano’s extremism during the primary; Mastriano told a local news outlet he had to send Shapiro a thank you card for the ad. Shapiro won the general election by 800,000 votes. Overall, the Pennsylvania Democrats spent at least $1.2 million to bolster Mastriano.
The Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., spent more than $3 million advancing Republican Senate nominee Don Bolduc’s campaign in New Hampshire. After a close race, Bolduc, another 2020 draft dodger, lost the race to incumbent Democrat Senator Maggie Hassan.
And in Illinois, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker used tens of millions from his campaign and the Democratic Governors Association coffers to help far-right candidate Darren Bailey win the Republican nomination. Again, voters rejected Bailey, voting strongly for Pritzker.
Concerns about the high dollar amounts were twofold. First, the extraordinary financial cost of supporting extremist Republicans came as other fighting Democratic candidates said they had been spurned after asking the party for support.
Additionally, some Democrats feared that pressure to bolster far-right Republicans could anger party funders. “In the past, this was a well-known tactic with minimal impact,” said Lauren Tsuboyama, Democratic strategist at consulting firm Blue State. Today, donors may not want their money to go to extremist Republicans: “More than ever, voters — especially Democratic voters — are paying closer attention to where their hard-earned donations go.”
Another possible downside for the Democrats, their elected MAGA Republican nominees could have been defeated in their primary. “It looks like you’re up against the person you feared the most,” said Snyder, the Democratic adviser, noting that the more moderate GOP member would have an ingrained centrist narrative. But that’s not how it developed.
In Colorado, Democrats poured nearly $6 million into more extreme Republican candidates who lost the gubernatorial, Senate and Congressional primaries. Still, the Democrats beat the more moderate Republicans in all three races.
In Michigan’s 3rd congressional district, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s fundraising arm, spent half a million dollars on ads promoting a Trump-backed candidate. The incumbent Republican, who voted to impeach Trump last year, lost the August primary by 3 points, but Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten still won the race by 13 points.
“Pushing Republican extremism wins the Democratic election. If you’re planning campaigns, running in these Republican primary’s is a really risky way to do it.”
For a party that has struggled to articulate a coherent message about its achievements under President Joe Biden, Republican candidates announcing walkouts seem to have served as an effective foil.
“Although there is a cognitive dissonance to this strategy,” said Alyssa Cass, a Democratic strategist who worked on Democratic candidate Pat Ryan’s campaign in New York’s 18th district, “I’m not someone who initially shared the hand-wringing over it .”
Conventional wisdom leading up to the election – including polls, guidelines and general advice for Democratic strategists – was that sending voters a message that democracy was in jeopardy was not effective, Cass said. “This election shows that was really wrong,” she said. “Pushing Republican extremism wins the Democratic election. If you’re planning campaigns, running in these Republican primary’s is a really risky way to do it.”
A few hundred or a thousand votes the other way might have produced a different outcome, Cass said, but the particularly grim political stakes this cycle have played in Democrats’ favor.
Furthermore, Republicans should be responsible for the dangers of fomenting extremism and polarization, Snyder said, “whose fault is it when a radical extremist wins a Republican primary?” he has asked. “I think national Republican leaders need to look in the mirror to have created this dynamic where candidates with extremely radical views can win their primary from the start.”