Democrats routinely — and correctly — warn the public that the Trump wing of the Republican Party poses an existential threat to American democracy. It may be surprising then to learn that they’re also spending tremendous sums of money quietly boosting Trump’s picks in Republican primaries out of the hope that they’ll be easier to beat in the general election. No matter the motive, it’s a reckless gamble, and it undermines the credibility of the party’s message that its base must mobilize against burgeoning authoritarianism.
According to Politico, Democratic-aligned groups are spending tens of millions of dollars intervening in Republican primaries to help more extreme candidates win and to position them to run against Democrats. And the latest and most surprising example of this arose after an Axios report that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, is spending close to half a million dollars on an ad campaign in Michigan’s third district to help the Trump-backed candidate, John Gibbs, in his bid to oust Republican incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer in the upcoming primary.
The advertisement masquerades as an attack ad, but it explicitly drives home Gibbs’ own messaging by linking him to Trump and indicating that he’ll continue to back Trump’s policy agenda in Washington — all without landing any substantive criticisms other than to label him “too conservative” (not a knock against a Republican in a primary). It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of free advertising for Gibbs in the final sprint before the primary next week.
Gibbs is not just an old-school Republican dipping his toes in Trumpy rhetoric to garner extra votes. He’s a Trump die-hard with the exact kinds of background Democrats consider dangerous: He worked in the Trump administration, won Trump’s endorsement, backs Trump’s 2020 disinformation, and has in the past promoted, according to CNN, “an unfounded conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign chairman John Podesta took part in a Satanic ritual.” He’s defended his hardline anti-abortion position, which opposes exceptions for incest and rape, by saying, “There are many great Americans all around the country who were actually conceived from rape."
Gibbs’ target in the primary, Meijer, is in fact one of just 10 Republican members of the House who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection — one of those rare Republicans willing to push back against the party's slide toward strongman politics. But with Gibbs, the theory goes, Democrats will have a far better chance of winning in a polarized election.
The DCCC’s ad buy is a fantastic deal for Gibbs. But for the Democrats, it’s playing with fire.
In a best-case scenario under this strategy, Gibbs, with the aid of the Democrats, wins the Republican primary and then loses the general election to the Democratic candidate, Hillary Scholten, in a race that she might have otherwise lost to Meijer. One reason that the DCCC may feel emboldened to use this tactic is that recent redistricting has made Michigan’s third district significantly more Democratic, turning a once deeply red district to a toss-up race, and potentially making Gibbs’ politics less competitive in a general election.
But even under this best-case scenario, there is a real cost involved: Dems help Gibbs win a primary, handing Trump another endorsement win and signaling to Republican observers in Michigan that the political winds favor right-wing extremism over Meijer-style moderation. It would also make it more likely that more candidates position themselves in the Trump vein in the 2024 Republican primaries, and also make Republicans nationwide more likely to view maverick pro-democracy votes, like Meijer’s impeachment vote, as a career killer.
Now in a worst-case scenario, Gibbs wins the primary and the general election, and ends up in Washington next year. This scenario isn’t that far-fetched — if Republican candidates were felled by promoting laughable conspiracy theories or making offensive remarks, then Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene wouldn’t have become one of the most high-profile Republicans in Congress in the last couple of years. And keep in mind that between inflation, crime rates, and a general historical disadvantage for incumbent parties in midterm elections, Republicans are poised for a wave election, meaning that even if Gibbs’ extremism is a turnoff for some Republicans, exceptionally high Republican turnout could be enough to help him win anyway.
This is all to say nothing of the simple fact that the Democrats' money could otherwise be spent directly helping vulnerable Democrats ahead of a potential November bloodbath.
Michigan’s third district isn’t the only place where this risky strategy is being implemented. But the DCCC’s intervention in the Meijer race is particularly infuriating to some House Democrats, who, as Politico notes, pay membership dues to the DCCC, and assume it reflects leadership attitudes about political strategy.
Many of them are concerned that the Democrats can’t back GOP extremists and say that they pose an existential threat to democracy at the same time. “Many of us are facing death threats over our efforts to tell the truth about Jan. 6. To have people boosting candidates telling the very kinds of lies that caused Jan. 6 and continues to put our democracy in danger, is just mind-blowing,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla. told Politico. She’s right.