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Anti-Sanders attack ad isn't quite what it seems to be

The existence of an ambitious Republican campaign to boost Bernie Sanders is no longer in doubt. A new "attack" ad is actually designed to help him.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at a town hall in Independence, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at a town hall in Independence, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016.
Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they'd prefer to run against Bernie Sanders in the general election. Whether or not their assumptions are correct is a separate question, but GOP officials, convinced that the senator would be easy to defeat, have gone out of their way to help Sanders in the Democratic race.
It's what made this New York Times report stand out as noteworthy.

A "super PAC" founded by the former TD Ameritrade executive Joe Ricketts is spending more than $600,000 on a television ad in Iowa lashing Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as "too liberal" in the final days of his close race against Hillary Clinton in the state's caucuses. [...] The spot is expected to be backed by $600,000 in spending on television ads, and there will be additional expenditures on radio and digital advertising.

At first blush, the move may seem encouraging to Sanders supporters. After all, if Republicans have gone from defending Sanders to attacking him, maybe it means GOP insiders are getting scared of the Vermont independent?
It's a nice idea, but that's not what's going on here. In fact, far from an attack ad, this commercial, backed by a prominent Republican mega-donor, is the latest evidence of the GOP trying to help Sanders, not hurt him.
Indeed, in this case, it's hardly even subtle. This commercial touts Sanders' support for tuition-free college, single-payer health care, and higher taxes on the "super-rich." It concludes that the senator is "too liberal," which isn't much of an insult in an ad directed towards liberal voters in Iowa.
In other words, we're talking about a Republican mega-donor investing in a faux attack ad to help Sanders win because he sees Sanders as easy to beat in November.
It's the mirror image of the tactic Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) used in the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Missouri, when she invested in ads intended to boost then-Rep. Todd Akin (R) in his primary race, with commercials touting his far-right positions and calling him "too conservative." The point was to make Akin look better in the eyes of Missouri Republicans so he'd win the primary, making it easier for the incumbent Democrat to defeat him on Election Day.
It worked beautifully. Akin won the primary and then McCaskill won the election by over 15 points.
Ricketts' super PAC is running the same play from the same playbook. McCaskill herself called it out overnight, saying on Twitter, "I see you Joe Ricketts. And I know exactly what you're up to. #ToddAkin Don't fall for it Iowa Dems."
Whether Democratic voters care that Republicans are desperate to help Sanders is unclear; many Dems may simply conclude that the GOP is wrong about the senator's national prospects. But the existence of a Republican campaign to boost the Vermonter is no longer in doubt.