For years, Democratic activists have begged the party to play the kind of “constitutional hardball” long practiced by the GOP. They have mostly been crushingly disappointed. After Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans shrank the Supreme Court for a year to hold the swing seat open for Donald Trump to fill and then changed their made-up rules twice more in the next four years to secure a hard-right 6–3 majority for a generation, Democrats did precisely nothing about it other than grumble and hope that voters would do their jobs for them.
Yet after spending most of the past two years handcuffed by the inexplicable timidity of a handful of their own senators, Democrats finally did some ratfucking of their own by intervening in GOP primaries on behalf of presumably less electable MAGA weirdos like Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Well, we now have the hard evidence to evaluate the Democratic strategy of boosting dangerous crackpots for temporary electoral advantage. Did it work? And how does the potential blowback compare to other escalatory proposals?
The chief risk of the MAGA enhancement strategy was obvious all along: Win, and you prevent a radicalized GOP from taking over Congress and key governors’ seats, sandbagging the remainder of Joe Biden’s first term, and carrying out a more disciplined and successful version of Trump’s 2020 post-election coup. Lose, and you’re looking at genuinely dangerous people like Wisconsin’s Tim Michels and Arizona’s Kari Lake sitting in charge of swing state election machinery, spending the next two years scheming with their gerrymandered-forever state legislatures to figure out how to prevent a Democrat from ever again winning a presidential election.
Democrats took months of flak for this relatively tame maneuver from the kind of sober, centrist pundits who have spent the past four years inadvertently boosting the far-right’s transgender panic and cancel culture fixations. Josh Barro argued that spending money to elevate people like Illinois Republican Darren Bailey means that despite Democrats’ rhetoric about democracy in peril, they believe that “the risk of those candidates winning is an acceptable one, part of the ordinary course of two-party democracy, rather than an existential threat to the institutions we hold most dear.”
This argument cannot withstand scrutiny. The difference between Doug Mastriano and the runner–up in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary, Lou Barletta, is negligible. Both embraced the Big Lie, and both would almost certainly do Trump’s bidding in a potential coup scenario. The real difference is that Mastriano is crazy in other ways that turned off the electorate. If you can keep both of them out of power by juicing one of them, it’s a no-brainer. There’s no law that says you can’t do it.
In my 2018 book It’s Time to Fight Dirty, I urged Democrats to use the power that they have the next time they win unified control in Washington to level the electoral playing field. Whether that is adding new Senate states to rectify the chamber’s structural bias, expanding the Supreme Court to reflect the voting public’s long-running preference for Democratic presidents and Democratic-controlled Senates, or passing a sweeping voting rights act to safeguard democracy and make it easier for all citizens to make their voices heard, the proposed reforms shared two features: One, they don’t require going through the onerous and mostly impossible constitutional amendment process, and two, they are actually the right thing to do.
None of these things happened in the 117th Congress. D.C. statehood and voting rights legislation passed the House but died in the Senate at the hands of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Supreme Court expansion never made it further than some chatter during the Democratic presidential primaries and Biden’s useless Supreme Court reform commission. Ranked choice voting is gaining steam at the state level, but unless it is paired with multi-member districts for the U.S. House, it is going to achieve little other than sparing us panic over fringe third-party candidates acting as spoilers.
The total inaction on these big-picture reforms highlights the problem with Democrats emerging from their civility cocoon every two years to play momentary electoral hardball: Win or lose, it leaves most of the important work undone. So we likely have a 50–50 or 51–49 Democratic Senate. While Democrats appear to still have an outside chance at the House, they could have won handily had they outlawed partisan gerrymandering. If they fall short in the House, Democrats won’t be able to pursue their policy agenda, and will be incapable of any further action to shore up democracy. And that means that Barro and his friends are right about one thing: There are still a number of influential elected Democrats who think there exists some meaningful difference between Trump and his acolytes and the rest of the Republican Party, and that the latter cohort is “normal.”
The idea that mainstream Republicans are harmless is a tragic delusion shared by more than just Manchin and Sinema. MAGA was just a few months old when McConnell pulled off the Merrick Garland blockade. It was nothing but a twinkle in the eye of right-wing populists when the Roberts court shredded the Voting Rights Act, unleashed a flood of dark money in our elections, and allowed states to continue gerrymandering their legislatures and House delegations.
MAGA didn’t force McConnell to hold dozens of federal judgeships open for Trump. It had nothing to do with the descent of state Republican parties in Wisconsin and Texas into enthusiasts of soft authoritarianism. Mainstream Republicans had almost nothing to say about then-candidate Trump’s position that he would only accept the election results if he won. When a victorious Trump spent months yammering about his febrile delusion that he would’ve won the popular vote without all the “illegals” in California, mainstream Republicans—at that point still ostensibly in charge of the party—did nothing.
Until Trump came along, people like Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski were perfectly happy to let the Supreme Court artificially enhance the GOP’s structural advantages in American politics. After Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, she said that Barack Obama “should have left that task to the next administration.” A little more than four years later, Murkowski voted to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to a lifetime position on the court less than two weeks before the 2020 presidential election. If she felt any cognitive dissonance, she didn’t act on it. Is changing the rules of lifetime SCOTUS nominations over and over to enshrine one party’s advantage in our politics a threat to democracy?
Ultimately for Democrats, what is important isn’t necessarily any particular tactic, but a state of mind that must be shared widely across the party at all levels of government: The current version of the Republican Party is a threat to the existence of democracy itself. Any strategy or policy that can reduce or eliminate the GOP’s ridiculous advantages in the Electoral College, House, and Senate must be pursued at all costs. Any available strategy that is both legal and constitutional that can reduce the total number of Republicans in office should be pursued, whether it is regarded as “dirty” or “hardball.” That sense of urgency must be constant, rather than deployed selectively in election years when the possibility of a GOP takeover becomes horrifyingly real.
After all, this year’s MAGA-boosting ploy worked. The elevation of fringe candidates in GOP primaries in the New Hampshire Senate and Pennsylvania gubernatorial races all but removed them from the board. Democrats won both races in a romp. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois blew out his hard-right challenger Darren Bailey, although it is not clear that anyone in the Republican field would have been competitive. Democrat Hillary Scholten waxed crackpot Republican John Gibbs in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. All told, Democrats got their preferred extremist opponent in 6 of the 14 races where they spent money on the project. Of those six, Democrats appear to have won all six. Democrats will also likely lose some of the races, like Nevada governor, where they failed to get their preferred opponent.
Most far-right candidates needed no help from Democrats to prevail in their primary contests, from Georgia’s Senate candidate Herschel Walker (who goes to a runoff with incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock in December) to Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (whose close race is yet to be called).* The fact that election denialism has moved to the center of Republican politics means that the precise mix of individuals in the Senate matters less than the reality that the party as a whole is no longer committed to procedural democracy as it is commonly understood. And while Democratic meddling might have swung a handful of extremely close primaries, hundreds of intraparty GOP contests were left unmolested by Democratic strategists, and time after time the voters picked the maniacs over the mainstream.
There’s a lesson here: While they shouldn’t feel bad about fighting “dirty” on the margins like they did this year, Democrats cannot save democracy piecemeal. They can’t save it with committee hearings and sober presidential speeches and appeals to decency. They can’t forge a grand cross-party coalition with a GOP that no longer exists and never really existed in the way that people like Nancy Pelosi like to imagine when they wax on about “the party of Lincoln.” They can’t save it with election-season interventions after doing nothing to reinforce the wobbly beams of democracy’s infrastructure.
Yet Tuesday night was also a reminder of how hard this task really is. Two years of a Democratic Senate wasn’t enough to get any of the critical reforms passed. Even in power, leading Democrats including the president have meekly accepted the power and authority of the far-right’s ill-gotten Supreme Court majority, and could not muster any set of winning arguments that could persuade Manchin, Sinema, or any other holdouts to expand the court or somehow rein it in. Limp half-measures got them here. Hardball has now given them a new lease on life and a real shot at another trifecta in 2024.
The policy paralysis that will result if Republicans take the House should give Democrats more time to ponder the true contours of their plight, and to figure out what works and what doesn’t. While much of the left’s energy will have to go into the effort to protect democracy against the inevitable 2024 machinations of MAGA world, activists also must coalesce around getting reformists into as many positions as possible. Perhaps there will be nothing left of democracy to reclaim the next time Democrats hold the House, Senate, or both. But if there is, the party must be prepared with candidates willing to torch the filibuster and reshape American democracy from the ground up. No one else is going to do it.
Democratic meddling in GOP primaries, this cycle and moving forward, passes the “Is it legal, and is it right?” test, by virtue of what the Republican Party has become. And if Democrats want to put American democracy on firmer footing moving forward, they must be able to weather sniping from the press corps about their tactics. Imagine all of the horrified tut-tutting that would emanate from the Politico set if some future Democratic president signs a bill adding seats to the Supreme Court. The fact that one or two presidential candidates even mulled the idea in 2019 was enough to set off a cascade of disapproving tweets and editorials. What if Republicans do it right back to us, they asked? Where does it end?
I would argue it ends with “winning.” We wouldn’t be sweating the Senate at all if Manchin and Sinema had signed off on D.C. statehood. And does anyone think MAGA Republicans give a damn about retaliation? About counterescalation? They don’t, and not just because they value policy achievements over Beltway approval. They also now have 10 years of evidence that Democrats will simply roll over when Republicans find some new norm to violate or constitutional lacuna to drive a truck through. If nothing else, spending some spare cash to drub Big Lie Republicans in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race is a good start. If this is the muck and mire of dirty politics, then so be it. The party is going to have to get a lot dirtier if it ever wants to be able to hold and exercise power.
Correction, Nov. 15, 2022: This article originally misstated when a runoff in the Georgia Senate race will happen. It’s in December, not January.