Over the past year, Democrats trotted out an oft-criticized strategy for dealing with the few Republican candidates willing to stand up to Donald Trump: They tried to defeat them.
In gubernatorial, Senate and House primaries across the country, Democratic campaign committees poured millions into boosting pro-Trump candidates and defeating less extreme Republicans. The logic was clear: more radical and MAGA-obsessed GOP candidates would be easier for Democrats to defeat in November.
Electing any Republican, even those who are not fully indoctrinated in pro-MAGA thinking, risks placing American democracy in peril.
But some pundits and even some Democratic politicians took the party leadership to task for what, on the surface, might seem like a cynical decision. Democrats “or their political consultants,” wrote Amy Davidson Sorkin in the New Yorker last August, “may have become too enraptured by the idea of their own cleverness or toughness” to recognize they were “immers(ing) themselves deeper in folly” by boosting the candidacies of pro-Trump Republicans. “It’s dishonorable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s just damn wrong,” said Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, to risk putting people in Congress who would undermine the nation’s democratic guardrails.
In a recent vote, however, congressional Republicans proved that, from a good governance standpoint, Democrats were justified in their political strategy. And the country received another unfortunate reminder that the modern Republican Party cannot be trusted to protect American democracy.
On Sept. 21, the House voted on the Presidential Election Reform Act. The bill would protect American elections from the kind of machinations that endangered our electoral process just two years ago, such as making it more difficult for state legislators to overrule election results and clarifying that the vice president plays only a ministerial role in counting electoral votes.
Every Democrat backed the legislation, but just nine Republicans joined them. All holdout Republicans, which included co-sponsor Rep Liz Cheney, are either retiring or, like Cheney, lost their party’s nomination to a pro-Trump Republican. Eight of the nine voted to impeach President Trump in January 2021, and all nine have publicly acknowledged that Trump lost the 2020 election.
This contingent – along with a handful of others – were seen as the few bulwarks within the GOP willing to stand up and fight for basic democratic norms. But the vote confirms that electing any Republican, even those who are not fully indoctrinated in pro-MAGA thinking, risks placing American democracy in peril.
Take, for example, Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted for the legislation and in January 2021 voted to impeach Trump. Earlier this year Democrats helped defeat him in a primary against MAGA (and Trump endorsed) Republican John Gibbs. So far, in baldly political terms, the Democrats’ strategic analysis that Gibbs would be easier to defeat appears to be correct. After the primary, the Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the race from “toss up” to “lean Democratic.”
Whatever sane members of the GOP remain are an endangered species, overwhelmingly rejected by their fellow Republicans.
But aside from the immediate political ramifications – and Meijer’s past acts of political courage – his re-election would have brought Republicans one step closer to a majority in the House. He would almost certainly have voted to make House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, or some other Republican leader, the next speaker of the House. That would be same McCarthy, and the same Republican leadership, who whipped its members to vote against the Electoral Reform Act. Two hundred and three House Republicans followed that guidance and refused to support a basic raft of electoral reforms that will ensure the votes of the American electorate are counted in future elections.
A few apostates like Meijer do not change the fundamental fact that the House GOP has little interest in safeguarding American democracy. Meijer, if he had won, he simply would have become another enabler of the GOP’s anti-democracy caucus.
The arguments criticizing Democrats for working against occasionally pro-democracy Republicans were based on a faulty premise: that there exists a sane and reasonable wing of the modern Republican Party. Whatever sane members of the GOP remain – especially after this year’s primary challenges against them – are an endangered species, overwhelmingly rejected by their fellow Republicans. Furthermore they are members of a party that is fundamentally irredeemable and – with the notable exceptions of Cheney and perhaps retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger – are more than willing to enable its extremist majority.
Democrats may have partisan, even cynical reasons for wanting to defeat House Republicans, but can anyone really argue that from a pro-democracy perspective, they are wrong? Is American democracy better off with a Democratic majority in the House or a Republican majority with a smattering of reasonable Republicans?
Even in gubernatorial races, the Democratic strategy is defensible. In Arizona, Democrats worked to undermine Republican candidate Karrin Taylor Robson in order to boost the eventual primary winner, Kari Lake, who has stated unequivocally that Trump won the 2020 election. If Lake wins, it’s a (small “d”) democratic disaster for the state, but considering that Robson refused to say publicly that Biden won the election, how much confidence can any voter have that she would stand up to the pro-MAGA voices in her party?
There might be real policy differences on issues like abortion and immigration that could justify a vote for a Republican candidate this fall. But if one cares about democracy, free elections, and that the will of the American voter is respected in 2024, the choice facing voters this fall is clear: a vote for Republican candidates – any Republican candidates – cannot be defended.