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Dems hope to ‘help’ key GOP candidates by meddling in primaries

A decade ago, Claire McCaskill persevered after boosting her preferred GOP rival in Missouri. Some Democrats are borrowing from her playbook this year.


In Democratic campaign circles, it is a story that has taken on mythic proportions. In the 2012 election cycle, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill appeared to be in a tough spot: She was a Democratic incumbent in an increasingly red state, and Republicans saw her as one of the year’s most vulnerable senators.

McCaskill and her team, however, had a plan.

As a crowded Republican field took shape, Democrats saw then-Rep. Todd Akin as the weakest — and easiest to defeat — GOP contender. It led McCaskill’s operation to start airing ads promoting Akin’s conservatism, hoping it would give his candidacy a boost. In effect, Missouri Democrats meddled in the Republican primary in the hopes of choosing their own opponent.

It worked: Akin won the primary; McCaskill celebrated in a highly memorable way; the Republican went on to make some indefensible comments about rape and pregnancies, and the Democratic incumbent won re-election by 16 points.

Her reaction after Akin's primary win was captured on camera.

A decade later, the idea of Democratic meddling in GOP primaries remains quite popular.

In Illinois, for example, Democrats decided months ago to start airing ads in advance of the GOP’s gubernatorial primary, hoping to undermine Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin’s candidacy.

In Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial primary, the likely Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, was even more explicit in borrowing from McCaskill’s playbook. Shapiro’s team aired a campaign ad touting state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s conservative credentials, and telling voters that a Mastriano primary victory would be a win “for what Donald Trump stands for.”

There’s no real subtlety here: Democrats see Mastriano as far too radical to win a statewide election, so they’re doing their part to help him win the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination.

NBC News reported that this is a popular Democratic tactic in all kinds of states.

Democrats bracing for devastating midterm losses this fall are zeroing in on a strategy that lands them on the battlefield now. They are investing millions of dollars to meddle in Republican primaries for governor, attempting to elevate their preferred competitors in November or weaken their biggest threats.

While Illinois and Pennsylvania offer high-profile examples, there are others. NBC News’ report noted similar efforts in Nevada and Oregon.

To be sure, some electoral mischief is common. In states with open primaries, for example, voters from one party will often vote in the other party’s primary in the hopes of boosting weak contenders.

But the McCaskill gambit is qualitatively different: It’s a tactic that involves pushing a message that carefully strikes a chord with both parties, subtly manipulating rivals.

We’ll find out soon enough whether it works as well for Democrats in 2022 as it did in Missouri in 2012.