The Democrats’ MAGA Gambit

Listen to this episode

Speaker 1: Well, gosh, guys, sorry to keep you waiting. But it’s decisive at this point. We did it.

Mary Harris: If you listen to their acceptance speeches, it’s hard to miss a certain glee in the tone of Republican primary winners this week.

Speaker 1: Arizona has sent a message loud and clear. We are sick of Joe Biden and the Democrats destroying our country.

Mary Harris: Election Day was Tuesday. 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 Trump.

Advertisement

Speaker 1: This is us versus the cartel.

Mary Harris: In Michigan, the newly minted Republican candidate for governor seemed to be spoiling for a fight. Trump endorsed her, too.

Speaker 3: I’m doing this for you girls and every child in Michigan to make sure that the next four years are filled with opportunities and not locked classrooms and massive grocery bills.

Mary Harris: And then there’s the victor in a House race in Grand Rapids.

Speaker 3: We do have a projected winner this morning in Michigan’s third congressional district primary.

Mary Harris: I mean, I was listening to one Trump endorsed candidate, a guy who won the Republican primary for a House seat in Michigan, John Gibbs.

Advertisement

Speaker 4: Yes.

Mary Harris: He called his victory an earthquake.

Speaker 5: If you look at the amount of money that was spent relative to the amount of money we spent, it’s a huge differentials, very asymmetric. So I think this is something that was in shock waves in a good way throughout the nation.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: Yeah.

Mary Harris: Jim Newell covers politics for Slate.

Speaker 4: Yeah, I mean, buddy, it’s not that big a deal. You know, you you’re running against a guy who voted for Trump’s impeachment, most of whom are retiring or losing their primaries. And you were the latest. But yeah, it was asymmetric. Peter Meyer spent like $4 million, the incumbent. And then Gibbs spent very little until the end of the race when Democrats jumped in to to help him out a little bit.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Democrats jumped.

Speaker 4: In. Yes, Democrats didn’t. They spent like 400,000 in the last week of the race.

Mary Harris: To Jim, 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 social conservatives in the hope they are going to be easier to beat come November. This strategy relies on big ad buys. These ads call candidates too conservative, and they list off their more radical positions on the 2020 election. On immigration.

Speaker 5: A hard line against immigrants at the border and so-called patriotic education in our schools.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: So these are all things that Republican primary voters like.

Speaker 5: See as responsible for the content of this advertising.

Mary Harris: It’s a little bit it’s like reverse psychology.

Speaker 4: Yeah. Yeah.

Mary Harris: Like this guy seems really Republican, right? Like, yeah. Okay.

Speaker 4: That’s good to know. I will vote for him.

Mary Harris: Do you think that Trump endorsed candidates may have Democrats to thank as much as like the big guy himself?

Speaker 4: I think that is kind of the missing piece of analysis in races like this, is how much of this you know, how much do these democratic interferences really move things? Or are Republicans just like was their mind already made up in that sense.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Or are they just hastening the inevitable?

Speaker 4: Yeah. Yeah.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, inside this year’s Democratic primary strategy. Crazy or crazy like a fox, a mary Harris you’re listening to. What next? Stick around.

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

Speaker 4: Yes. The one where really stuck out to me was Doug Marciano’s win in the Pennsylvania Republican governor primary.

Mary Harris: Yeah. Why did it stick out there?

Speaker 4: Well, it was a you know, I really noticed that Mastriano was leading in the polls. And then it was in this case, it was Josh SHAPIRO, the likely Democratic nominee, his campaign, that started running these ads to make sure Mastriano got over the finish line there.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: What did the ads look like?

Speaker 4: It was Doug Mastriano is too conservative for this state, handpicked by Trump, etc., etc..

Speaker 5: This is Republican State Senator Doug Mastriano. He’s the Republican who’s ahead in the polls for governor. He wants to outlaw abortion. It’s Mastriano who wrote the Heartbeat Bill in Pennsylvania and he’s one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters. He wants to end.

Mary Harris: All those descriptors that it could be positive for one group and negative for another.

Speaker 4: Right. Yeah. I mean, you’re basically amplifying a Trump endorsement when you do that.

Mary Harris: 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.

Advertisement

Speaker 4: Yeah. So 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 6: Obviously, there’s a lot of cheating going on in Democrat areas in Pennsylvania. So we’re trying to find out what happened and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Speaker 4: You know, he bought into the whole election fraud election denial theory and he was saying Pennsylvania has the constitutional right, the legislature, to just appoint its own electors and declare the you know, the election was fraudulent.

Mary Harris: Was he involved in January 6th?

Speaker 4: Yeah. So Mastriano was there. He was, I believe, interviewed by the January six committee. You know, he organized to bring a lot of people to the January 6th rally. He’s a very devout Christian. But I you know, and but that makes him a pretty hard liner. A lot of socialists use. You know, he’s just really you know, he’s attended like QAnon related conferences. I mean, he’s a really out there guy.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: And I remember when Mastriano won because the thinking seemed to be. That’s cool. We’ll, like, just beat him. That’s fine from Democrats, right?

Speaker 4: Yeah. And Republicans do. I mean, a lot of Republicans fight like, oh, we just blew this race entirely. But if you look at it, it’s a Pennsylvania is a 5050 state. It’s a really good year for Republicans. I mean, anything can really happen. There are some polls where it’s, you know, within the margin of error. So it’s going to be, I mean, really competitive. I think going down to the finish.

Mary Harris: That Michigan House race where a Trump endorsed candidate declared victory just this week, the one who called his victory an earthquake. Jim’s got his eye on that competition to the current state rep, now a lame duck. Peter Meyer, he just conceded to that hard line conservative challenger John Gibbs. And if Gibbs wins the general, Democrats are going to lose someone who’s been an occasional ally.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: Peter Meyer, 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 January 6th, he voted to impeach Trump. He is one of the ten Republicans who did that.

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

Speaker 4: It’s putting a stake in the ground is the gutsy move. You know, you’re your first fall, you know, ten days in Congress or whatever. He’s considered, you know, not a moderate necessarily, but a reasonable person the Democrats can can work with. He’s just someone who I think a lot of Democrats like.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: I personally.

Speaker 4: Personally. But in redistricting. His his district now is slightly more Democratic friendly than it was last time. So it’s one of the few real offensive targets the Democrats have coming into the midterms. So Democrats then want to get someone unlike Meyer, who doesn’t have a broad bipartisan appeal. So that’s kind of the the genesis of all of this. John Gibbs, meanwhile, he was nominated to be Trump’s director of the Office of Personnel Management, which is a huge job. I mean, that’s direct, you know, the 2 million person federal workforce. He and his nomination never made it through the Senate. It was tabled because he simply didn’t have the support because he said crazy things in the past.

Mary Harris: I mean, how crazy.

Speaker 4: Well he talked about and I this was even I guess pre Q and on this was Pizzagate where you’re talking about you know John Podesta the counselor to Obama and campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, you know, having satanic rituals in his house.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: That did not happen.

Speaker 4: That did not. I mean, as far as we know yet, no, it’s it’s a total, you know, out there conspiracy theory. He’s, you know, 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, you know, in the federal government by Trump and just couldn’t get anywhere. So then, you know, Trump wants someone to run against Peter Meyer and he answers the call, gets the Trump endorsement, says all the right things about how the election was fake, talk about how the irregularities made it mathematically impossible for Biden to have won. So, yeah, so this is the choice. It’s it’s between a kind of normal Republican who will vote to impeach Trump when Trump does an extremely impeachable thing. And a guy who’s just, you know, not really living on this planet. And so that is why Peter Meyer, who put his neck on the line politically, is extremely upset that Democrats are trying to see Gibbs. So it just so they can have an easier general election matchup.

Mary Harris: Yeah, I mean, I was reading this op ed that Meyer wrote and what stood out to me. This is right before the election, 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, you know, this person is supporting this strategy. So is this other person and they have no moral character.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Is that rare? Is that actually rare? Am I perceiving it right?

Speaker 4: Yeah. I mean, well, it’s not often just generally that you see someone, you know, kind of write a big blog entry, an essay about their race that they have coming up in a couple of days, because our Jamie Raskin and Elaine Luria, who are two members of the January six committee, you know, who’ve had very lofty rhetoric about the need to get rid of this this scourge of election denialism throughout the country. And then notes that, you know, they’ve actually kind of defended that the Democrats strategy of throwing some money behind John Gibbs here. So he’s calling them complete hypocrites. So, yeah, it is a pretty, pretty aggressive move. But, you know, he’s pissed off.

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

Speaker 4: He’s running against Hillary Skilton, who Meyer had actually beaten in the 2020 election. And, you know, as soon as, you know, these races were called last night, the Cook Political Report, which does election forecasting, they move the race from lean Republican to lean Democrat.

Mary Harris: Huh?

Speaker 4: So, you know, Democrats. They will have a much better shot now of winning this race than they were against Maya 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.

Mary Harris: After the break. The races were this high risk, high reward strategy is at its riskiest. Jim Newell says some of these contests where the Dems are messing around with Trumpism are riskier than others. So I asked him which of these races might be keeping Democratic Party bosses up at night?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: I think the riskiest one by leaps and bounds right now is Pennsylvania.

Mary Harris: The governor’s race.

Speaker 4: Yeah. Where, you know, mastriano just given the nature of what that office is and what he said about the 2020 election. You know, in the 2024 election, if Pennsylvania is the swing state on which the whole election hinges, as it often is, and Democrats win it, you know, this is a guy with a pretty big history of saying, well, there was fraud, baselessly, and saying, we just need the state legislature to perform its constitutional duty of just appointing electors itself.

Mary Harris: And he would have power, real power.

Speaker 4: Yeah, he would have absolutely real power to at least, you know, attempt something that gets, you know, like sending an alternate slate of electors that, you know, then throws us in a court, which is what, you know, Trump wanted Pence and others to help him do last time.

Mary Harris: It sounds like you’re saying the governor’s 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.

Speaker 4: Yeah. So if you have some of these. Really? Hard core election deniers in charge of the whole levers of power up and down the state, then yeah, that’s going to get pretty. That could get very dangerous.

Mary Harris: 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?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: Because I’m from Maryland. I love Maryland.

Mary Harris: I love it.

Speaker 4: I know Maryland. Well, I thought this one was interesting because Maryland Republicans have a history of being pretty pragmatic. You know, they they know it’s a 2 to 1 Democratic state. If they want to get a Republican in office, has to be pretty moderate person, just kind of an administrator type and not an ideologue.

Mary Harris: Yeah, we should set the table a little bit. Explain. Larry Hogan is the Republican governor of Maryland right now.

Speaker 4: And yeah, and he’s certainly popular.

Mary Harris: Yeah, he’s extremely popular. And he’s also a little bit of an anti-Trump.

Speaker 4: Yeah. I mean, he’s totally anti-Trump. I mean, he knew that the key to winning in Maryland, being popular in Maryland was he couldn’t align himself with Trump. So he tried to endorse his successor. And Kelly Schultz in this current gubernatorial race, who is trying to run along a similar model. But then you had the state delegate, Dan Cox, who is, you know, Trump endorsed him because Trump hates Larry Hogan and anyone Larry Hogan endorses. But Dan Cox, he organized buses for January six. You know, he’s proudly the Trump candidate. He wanted to impeach Larry Hogan. On January six. He tweeted that Mike Pence was a traitor. So this is not the type of candidate Republican who wins races in Maryland.

Speaker 4: So I thought that, you know, would Maryland Republicans actually go for this? And the Democratic Governors Association put $1,000,000 plus in ads behind Dan Cox, which is, you know, considerably more than Dan Cox, you know, had spent on himself, calling him again, handpicked by Trump, too conservative for Maryland.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 5: Cox worked with Trump trying to prove the last election was a fraud. 100% pro-life. He’s fighting to end abortion in Maryland, and Cox will protect the Second Amendment at all costs.

Speaker 4: Refusing to. And sure enough, Dan Cox won pretty comfortably in that state. And so when we talk about assessing the risk levels here, this is one and I always you know, I start to gild 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, like you can’t. You need to win about 30% of Democrats to win for Republicans in Maryland. Yeah, for Republicans, they need about 30% of Democrats.

Mary Harris: Senior real crossover appeal.

Speaker 4: Yes. And you can’t get that if you’re the guy who like was organized in passage of January six 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 bogeyman to Democrats now. It’s just last.

Mary Harris: Words, Jim.

Speaker 4: Famous last words, but it does seem like extremely unlikely. And if he does win, then there’ll be a super majority 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 super majority Republican legislature, so they can kind of do whatever they want.

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

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 4: You know, I think the it was the Meyer campaign, the ad for John Gibbs in Michigan that really set off a lot of people.

Mary Harris: And that was because it was the D triple C funding it. Right. Yeah.

Speaker 4: It was a terrible C funding it.

Mary Harris: So it had the official stamp of approval?

Speaker 4: Yes. And it just seemed unseemly. It seemed like, you know, 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 Meyer who. Dangerous puts political career. But his personal safety on the line by voting for impeachment in his first week as a member. Is this kind of how we should treat?

Speaker 4: Yeah, we should reward him. And also, why should we muddy the waters here with. You know, 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. And and in the words that keeps being thrown around our, you know, dishonorable and the wrong thing to do and everything like that. I’m not sure that to people like the see or campaign, people whose your one goal is is to win an election. You don’t think about these longer term concerns or the moral atmosphere or whatever your one goal is to win an election.

Mary Harris: So you’re going to do what it takes?

Speaker 4: Yeah, you’re going do what it takes. I mean, it’s your job to do whatever is necessary to win that election, to put yourself in the best shot, to win it. And, you know, they don’t really care if people, you know, think Peter Meyer’s a nice guy.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: You know, what I noticed about this letter is a lot of formers, a lot of people who are not necessarily in the game anymore. I just look at it and I think, yes, people seem to be speaking out about this. But at the same time, it’s not anyone in the forward thinking arm of the party. It’s not anyone. It’s not AOC. It’s not any of those people who are looking ahead at the future of the Democratic Party.

Speaker 4: Yeah. I mean, you have seen, you know, some frontline Democrats like Tom Malinowski, New Jersey, I think Jason Crow in Colorado. They were saying this is wrong. And I think some people have communicated to the digital see behind the scenes that this is not what they want their their dues that they’re required to pay to be spent on. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily a change strategy. I mean, it might just given the amount of backlash Democrats have gotten nationally from this spend, if they could do it all in the shadows, you know, they might keep going. But but, you know, maybe there’s enough backlash where they’re going to be more cautious about this going forward. But also, we’re at the end of primary season here.

Mary Harris: I was going to say the cat’s out of the bag right now. The experiment is in motion. Yeah, and we just have to wait till November.

Speaker 4: Yeah. You know, I’m not sure where I land in all this generally. I think it’s sad that Peter Meyer that this happened to him. 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. Yeah. So, you know, is the problem here the Democratic Party or is it the problem with a, you know, a radicalized Republican base?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Jim Newell, I’m super grateful for you coming on the show, and I’m super grateful to see you in person.

Speaker 4: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s great to be back in this extremely hot studio now.

Mary Harris: Heated it up just for you. Jim Newell is a senior politics writer at Slate. And that’s the show. If you’re a fan of what next, the best way to show your love for what we’re doing is to join Slate. Plus, you can go on over right now to Slate.com, slash, what next?

Mary Harris: Plus and sign up. When you do that, you will get ad free access to podcasts, including this one. You’ll also get all the great writing on Slate.com. It’s completely worth it. And it shows our bosses. You like us. You really, really like us. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna, Rubanova and Jared Downing. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back in this feed next week. I’ll catch you then.