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Democrats’ Risky Bet: Aid G.O.P. Extremists in Spring, Hoping to Beat Them in Fall

Even as National Democrats sounded the alarm about threats from far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing a hugely risky strategy: promoting some of those same far-right candidates in the GOP primaries in the hopes that extremists will be easier for Democrats to defeat in November. .

These efforts — strongest in California’s Central Valley, where a Democratic campaign ad hit Republican Rep. David Valadao for voting to impeach Donald J. Trump — have sparked angry finger-pointing and an inside-party debate about the dangers. and wisdom of strategy, especially during the Jan. 6 commission hearings on the Capitol attack.

The concern is clear: In a year when soaring gasoline prices and disorienting inflation have crushed President Biden’s approval ratings, the Republican candidates deemed ineligible by Democrats could very well win based on party membership alone.

“I realize that this kind of political play has been around forever, but our country is in a very different place now than in previous cycles,” said New York Democrat Representative Kathleen Rice. “It is outrageous that these democratic groups are spending money raising a person they know wants to tear down this democracy.”

Republican targets asked how to resist leadership and get tough votes when their former Democratic Party allies lurked in the background.

“I voted as I voted because I thought it was important,” Valadao said of his impeachment vote. “But to put us in a place where we vote for these things and then use it as ammunition against us in the campaigns, and put people they might see as a threat to democracy in a position where they can join of Congress tells me they are not serious about governing.”

The democratic effort extends far beyond Mr. Valadao’s race. The Democratic Party of Pennsylvania Selected State Senator Doug Mastrian during his successful search for the Republican nomination for governor, despite his spreading false claims about the 2020 election and his presence at the Jan. 6 protest behind the White House immediately preceding the Capitol riot.

In Southern California, a Democratic House candidate, Asif Mahmood, has flooded ether in Orange County with ads framing his run as a contest between him and an anti-abortion conservative, Greg Raths, helping Mr. Raths by never naming the leading Republican in the race, Rep. Young Kim, the incumbent and a much more moderate candidate. Instead, it highlighted Mr. Raths’ support for overthrowing Roe v. Wade and outlawing abortion and his affinity for “pro-Trump Republicans” — stances likely to appeal to Republican primary voters as to inciting the Democrats in general elections. (The attempt failed: Ms. Kim stopped Mr. Raths and advanced to the November election against Mr. Mahmood.)

And in Colorado, a shadowy new group called Democratic Colorado is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the state’s June 28 primary to broadcasting the conservative views of State Representative Ron Hanks, who hopes to challenge Senator Michael Bennet, a sitting Democrat. Mr. Hanks’s opinion would be widely shared by Republican primary voters. Left unmentioned – for now – were mr. Hanks Brags About Marching To The Capitol on Jan. 6, his false claim that those who attacked the Capitol were left-wing “antifa” and his baseless insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen by President Biden.

Alvina Vasquez, a Democratic Colorado spokeswoman, declined to say who funded the group and insisted there was nothing off-putting about the ads.

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

But Ms. Vasquez admitted that the group had only one target: Mr. Hanks, not the more moderate Republican in the primary, the businessman Joe O’Dea. The Bennet campaign declined to comment.

The concerned Democrats recognize the game they are playing, but insist that they have one task – to maintain their party’s slim majority in the House – and to target only those races where extremist candidates cannot triumph in November.

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

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

“What we did was start the general election campaign and demonstrate the stark contrast, the stark differences between him and me,” Mr. Shapiro told CNN.

But it’s not clear whether Democrats will be able to control what they can unleash, especially in a year when their party’s president is suffering from record low approval ratings and inflation reaching the rate it won’t in 40 years. is seen. A Suffolk University poll released Wednesday found that Mr Shapiro was active just 4 percentage points ahead of Mr. mastrian in the state’s crucial gubernatorial race.

As confident as Democratic insiders may sound about their chances against extremist Republicans, the inherent danger of playing with fire brings back gut-wrenching memories in some Democrats.

After all, they also believed that Mr Trump’s nomination in 2016 was a surefire ticket to a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, arguably created the modern genre of meddling in the opposing party’s nomination process, by posting an ad in 2012 banning far-right Congresswoman Todd Akin in the Republican Senate primary.

But Ms. McCaskill said that in the intervening years the stakes had become too high in all but a few races.

“No one – including Donald Trump – believed he would be elected president,” Ms McCaskill said. “Campaigns need to be very level-headed about their decision-making. They must be confident that they can prevail if the most extreme candidate is raised to the nomination.”

Michigan Republican Representative Peter Meijer was especially outraged that the Democrats’ House Majority PAC had spent nearly $40,000 in the media markets of Bakersfield and Fresno, California. broadcast an ad in which Mr. Valadao . is satirized for his impeachment vote, while promoting his opponent as “a true conservative.”

It’s impossible to say what impact the ad had, but with the votes in California’s 22nd congressional district still being counted, Valadao is holding onto a 1,400-vote lead over Mathys for the last spot in the second round in November.

“Pro-Trump Republican Chris Mathys: Military veteran, local businessman,” the Democratic ad blared. Or 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 praised Republicans who have stood up to Mr Trump a lion. But by using those votes against those Republicans for political gain, Mr. Meijer — another of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Capitol riot — said Democratic campaigns had downplayed the issue, even while the hearings had elevated 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.

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

For Democrats, the clear precedent is Ms. McCaskill, who reluctantly promoted Mr. Akin as her opponent in her 2012 re-election roundup. Two other Republicans in the primary that year would have been far more formidable opponents in a state trending Republican, with Barack Obama on the ballot for reelection. By comparison, Mr. Akin was underfunded, undisciplined and, she said, “a little weird.”

The words in the ad may have been threatening for general election voters, but Ms. McCaskill’s list of particulars against Mr. Akin—read in a friendly, lilting narration—sounded like music to Republican primary voters: “a crusader against a bigger government,” with a “family-oriented agenda” ” that would ban many forms of birth control. “And only Akin says President Obama is a complete threat to our civilization.”

“Todd Akin, Missouri’s true conservative,” the ad said, with a pregnant pause before ending, “is just too conservative.”

Mr. Akin went on to win the Republican primary by a multiple of the vote, then lost to Ms. McCaskill by nearly 16 percentage points.

Ms. McCaskill said that in some districts, such as Mr Valadao’s, where voters are strongly democratic, the tactic remains the right one. But, she added, the stakes are much higher in 2022 than a decade ago.

“I’ve decided internally that I was okay with being responsible for him becoming a United States senator,” she said of Mr Akin, adding that she couldn’t have made the same calculation for some of the current crop of Republicans.

Aside from individual candidates, Republican leadership has changed, Ms. McCaskill added. Her bet that Mr. Akin’s undisciplined propensity to silence is paying 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 ways of trying to do that.” whole thing shut down.”

Aside from the damage caused by those words, Mr. Akin’s own party turned him into a pariah, shunning him and assuring his defeat. Republican leaders cannot be counted on to shut down candidates this campaign season, she said.

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

“We should be supporting our own front lines,” she said, “not betting on agitators.”

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