Politics

Will Democrats’ Primary Gambit Backfire?

Gibbs walks out on stage in a white baseball cap and blue suit. The words "SAVE AMERICA!" appear behind him over a crowd of rallygoers.
John Gibbs, who defeated Rep. Peter Meijer in the GOP primary on Tuesday, appears at a Trump rally on April 2 in Washington, Michigan. Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you listen to their acceptance speeches, it’s hard to miss a certain glee in the tone of Republican primary winners this week. Election Day was Tuesday, and primaries were held in a couple of big swing states. In Arizona, the Republican who is now on the ballot for Senate is an election denier, affiliated with the Oath Keepers, and endorsed by Donald Trump.

In Michigan, the newly minted Republican candidate for governor seemed to be spoiling for a fight. Trump endorsed her, too. And then, there was the victor in the House race in Grand Rapids, who called his victory “an earthquake.”

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Jim Newell explains:  “Yeah, buddy, it’s not that big a deal. You were running against a guy who voted for Trump’s impeachment. You were just the latest. But yeah, it was asymmetric. Peter Meijer, the incumbent, spent, like, $4 million. And then Gibbs spent very little until the end of the race when Democrats jumped in to help him out.”

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To Newell, who covers politics for Slate, the bigger story of what went down this week at the polls is the Democratic playbook that may have led to some of these Republican victories. It’s a plan to boost Trump-style conservatives in the hope they’ll be easier to beat come November. This strategy relies on big ad buys. These ads call candidates “too conservative” and list off their more radical positions—on the 2020 election, on immigration. It’s a little bit like reverse psychology.

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On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Newell about this year’s Democratic primary strategy. Is it crazy, or crazy like a fox? Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: Do you remember when you first heard about this strategy the Democrats seem to be implementing to boost Trumpier candidates?

Jim Newell: Yes. The one that really stuck out to me was Doug Mastriano’s win in the Pennsylvania Republican governor primary.

Why did it stick out there?

I noticed that Mastriano was leading in the polls. And then it was Josh Shapiro, the likely Democratic nominee, that started running these ads to make sure Mastriano got over the finish line there.

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What did the ads look like?

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It was Doug Mastriano is too conservative for this state, handpicked by Trump, etc., etc.

All those descriptors that could be positive for one group and negative for another.

Right? Yeah, you’re basically amplifying a Trump endorsement when you do that.

And tell me a little bit about who Doug Mastriano is, because I feel like it’s important to put him in context. He is pretty extreme.

He is a state senator from Pennsylvania. He was one of the leading voices in the state last year who said that the Legislature should just appoint its own electors.

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He bought into the whole election fraud, election denial theory. And he was saying the Pennsylvania Legislature has the constitutional right to just appoint its own electors and declare the election was fraudulent.

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Was he involved in Jan. 6?

Yeah, Mastriano was there. He was, I believe, interviewed by the Jan. 6 committee. He organized to bring a lot of people to the Jan. 6 rally. He’s a very devout Christian, which makes him a pretty hard-liner on a lot of social issues. He’s attended QAnon- related conferences. He’s a really out-there guy.

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And I remember when Mastriano won because the thinking from Democrats seemed to be: That’s cool. We’ll just beat him.

Yeah. And Republicans, too. A lot of Republicans thought they just blew this race entirely. But if you look at it, Pennsylvania is a 50/50 state. It’s a really good year for Republicans. Anything can really happen. There are some polls where it’s within the margin of error. So it’s going to be really competitive going down to the finish.

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That Michigan house race where a Trump-endorsed candidate declared victory this week, calling it an “earthquake”? Jim’s got his eye on that competition, too. The current rep, now a lame duck, Peter Meijer, just conceded to hardline conservative challenger, John Gibbs. And if Gibbs wins the general, Democrats will lose someone who’s been an occasional ally.

Peter Meijer, he’s a freshman Republican representing the Grand Rapids area. He, in one of his first actions as a member of Congress, voted to certify the election, and then after Jan. 6, he voted to impeach Trump. He was one of the 10 Republicans who did that.

So that’s kind of putting a stake in the ground.

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It’s putting a stake in the ground. It’s a gutsy move for your first 10 days in Congress or whatever. He’s considered, not a moderate necessarily, but a reasonable person the Democrats can work with. He’s just someone who a lot of Democrats like.

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Personally.

Personally. But in redistricting, his district now is slightly more Democratic-friendly than it was last time. So it’s one of the few real offensive targets that Democrats have coming into the midterms. So, Democrats then want to get someone, unlike Meijer, who doesn’t have a broad bipartisan appeal.

That’s the genesis of all of this. John Gibbs, meanwhile, was nominated to be Trump’s director of the Office of Personnel Management, which is a huge job. His nomination never made it through the Senate. It was tabled because he simply didn’t have the support because he’s said crazy things in the past.

How crazy?

This was pre-QAnon. This was Pizzagate, where he was talking about John Podesta, the counselor to Obama and campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, having satanic rituals in his house.

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That did not happen.

No, it’s a total out-there conspiracy theory. He’s had a lot of slurs against Muslims in the past. He’s locked his Twitter history now, so no one can look at it. But this was a guy who was nominated for huge job in the federal government by Trump and just couldn’t get anywhere.

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So then, Trump wants someone to run against Peter Meijer, and he answers the call, gets the Trump endorsement, says all the right things about how the election was fake. So this is the choice. It’s between a normal Republican who will vote to impeach Trump when Trump does an extremely impeachable thing. And a guy who’s just not really living on this planet. And so that is why Peter Meijer, who put his neck on the line, politically, is extremely upset that Democrats are trying to seed Gibbs just so they can have an easier general election matchup.

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I was reading this op-ed that Meijer wrote and what stood out to me was that he was calling out Democrats by name, which to me is a sign of extreme anger, because when you’re a politician, you want to keep your relationships up with everyone and anyone. But this was a long op-ed that basically said this person is supporting this strategy, so is this other person, and they have no moral character. Is that rare?

It’s not often that you see someone write a big blog entry about their race that they have coming up in a couple of days. But yeah, he calls out Jamie Raskin and Elaine Luria, who are two members of the Jan. 6 committee who’ve had very lofty rhetoric about the need to get rid of this scourge of election denialism throughout the country. And then he notes that they’ve actually defended the Democrats’ strategy of throwing some money behind John Gibbs here. So he’s calling them complete hypocrites. It is a pretty aggressive move, but he’s pissed off.

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So now that John Gibbs has won this race in Michigan, who’s he going to be facing off with come November?

He’s running against Hillary Scholten, who Meijer had actually beaten in the 2020 election. And as soon as these races were called Tuesday night, the Cook Political Report, which does election forecasting, moved the race from lean Republican to lean Democrat.

Democrats will have a much better shot now of winning this race than would have against Meijer when they probably would have had zero chance of winning the race. But if they don’t, then an actual election conspiracist/denier is going to be in the seat when they could have had someone who has done pretty courageous things in the past.

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Some of these contests where the Dems are messing around with Trumpism are riskier than others. Which of these races might be keeping Democratic Party bosses up at night?

I think the riskiest one by leaps and bounds right now is Pennsylvania.

The governor’s race.

Just given the nature of what that office is and what Mastriano has said about the 2020 election, in the 2024 election, if Pennsylvania is the swing state on which the whole election hinges, as it often is, and Democrats win it, this is a guy with a pretty big history of baselessly saying, “Well, there was fraud, and we just need the state Legislature to perform its constitutional duty of appointing electors itself.”

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And he would have power, real power.

He would have absolutely real power to at least attempt something like sending an alternate slate of electors that then throws us into court, which is what Trump wanted Pence and others to help him do last time.

It sounds like you’re saying the governors races are where it’s really risky because you’re putting these chief executives in place and they just have access to so many levers of power.

If you have some of these really hard-core election deniers in charge up and down the state, then yeah, that’s going to get pretty dangerous.

There’s one more state I think it’s worth talking about, which is Maryland, where the Democrats did get involved in boosting Dan Cox, an extreme Republican who is now the Republican nominee. I know you wrote about this in particular. Why did you want to write about Maryland, and why do you think it was important to pay attention?

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Because I’m from Maryland. I love Maryland. I know Maryland. I thought this one was interesting because Maryland Republicans have a history of being pretty pragmatic. They know it’s a 2 to 1 Democratic state. If they want to get a Republican in office, it has to be a pretty moderate person, just an administrator type and not an ideologue.

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We should set the table a little bit. Larry Hogan is the Republican governor of Maryland right now.

Yeah, and he’s extremely popular.

And he’s also a little bit of an anti-Trump.

He’s totally anti-Trump. He knew that the key to winning in Maryland was he couldn’t align himself with Trump. So he tried to endorse his successor in Kelly Schulz in this current gubernatorial race, who was trying to run along a similar model.

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But then you had this state delegate, Dan Cox, whom Trump endorsed, because Trump hates Larry Hogan and anyone Larry Hogan endorses. Dan Cox organized buses for Jan. 6. He’s proudly the Trump candidate. He wanted to impeach Larry Hogan. On Jan. 6, he tweeted that Mike Pence was a traitor. This is not the type of Republican candidate who wins races in Maryland. So I wondered whether Maryland Republicans would actually go for this.

The Democratic Governors Association put $1 million-plus in ads behind Dan Cox—which is considerably more than Dan Cox had spent on himself—calling him, again, handpicked by Trump, too conservative for Maryland. And sure enough, Dan Cox won pretty comfortably in that state.

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So when we talk about assessing the risk levels—I start to get a little dizzy here because I’m always like, what if these are my famous last words—but this is one where it really doesn’t seem like there’s a ton of risk. For a Republican to win in Maryland, they need about 30 percent of Democrats.

So you need real crossover appeal.

Yes, and you can’t get that if you’re the guy who was organized in buses for Jan. 6, is totally opposed to abortion in all cases, touts his association with Trump everywhere, is tight with Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, who’s kind of a national boogeyman to Democrats now.

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Famous last words, Jim.

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Famous last words, but it does seem extremely unlikely. And if he does win, then there will be a supermajority Democratic Legislature that can check him, too, which is what makes states like Pennsylvania and Arizona more dangerous. Because if a Republican gets in there, they have a supermajority Republican legislature, so they can kind of do whatever they want.

I did notice that not every Democrat is on board with this strategy. A group of former Democratic leaders signed this open letter calling these tactics risky and unethical. What did you make of that letter?

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It was the Meijer campaign, the ad for John Gibbs in Michigan, that really set off a lot of people.

And that was because it was the DCCC funding it, so it had the official stamp of approval.

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Yes. And it just seemed unseemly. It seemed like this could be a really bad election for Democrats. Why are we risking putting these people in? But also, is this the way that someone like Peter Meijer, who didn’t just put his political career but also his personal safety on the line by voting for impeachment in his first week as a member—is this how we should reward him? And why should we muddy the waters here with our message that democracy is in danger, but then also there’s all these news stories about how we’re funding these people.

So that’s the one that really ticked people off. The words that keep being thrown around are “dishonorable,” and “the wrong thing to do,” and everything like that. To people like the DCCC or campaign people whose one goal is to win an election, you don’t think about these longer-term concerns or the moral atmosphere. Your one goal is to win elections.

So you’re going to do what it takes.

It’s your job to do whatever is necessary to win that election, to put yourself in the best shot to win it. And they don’t really care if people think Peter Meijer is a nice guy.

The cat’s out of the bag right now. The experiment is in motion,  and we just have to wait till November.

Yeah, I’m not sure where I land in all this generally. I think it’s sad that this happened to Peter Meijer. But Republican primary voters are grown adults with minds of their own. And this is what they want. They want these candidates who deny the election, and have Trump support, and want to completely ban abortion. So, you can blame all these nominations on Democrats for meddling or whatever. But it’s Republican primary voters who see these ads, and say, “That sounds great,” and then go in the voting booth and press the button. So, is the problem here the Democratic Party, or is the problem with the radicalized Republican base?

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