Members Only | September 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Democrats were right to ‘interfere’ in GOP primaries

Critics of the gambit presumed there’s daylight between Republicans.

Maggie Hassan.
Maggie Hassan.

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You may have heard that the Democrats meddled in GOP primaries. You may not have heard that “meddling” doesn’t do it justice.

Democrats pumped $53 million into helping Republicans. Not just any Republicans – a crop of some of the most extreme, Big Lie-touting, election-denying, insurrection-apologizing, QAnon-curious, Maga loyalists around.  

Now, trying to line up the weakest opponents is not particularly novel. Almost universal condemnation across the punditariat is.

The Dem old guard denounced it. Media commentators were aghast.  The rightwingers tut-tutted about the hypocrisy of it all. Indeed, how could Democrats campaign against the Maga threat while spending tens of millions helping the most active Maga threats?

The Dem old guard denounced it. Media commentators were aghast.  The rightwingers tut-tutted about the hypocrisy of it all. Indeed, how could Democrats campaign against the Maga threats while spending tens of millions helping the most active Maga threats?

I even fretted on the air that the maneuver might be, as former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt put it, “playing with fire.” It sure did sound like Smokey the Bear handing out kerosene.

But the pundits were wrong. So was I.

A new analysis shows that six out of the 13 attempts got Democrats their weak opponent. That significantly increased their chances of winning three governors races, two House seats and a Senate seat.

How much does a weak opponent tilt the odds? 

Democratic US Senator Maggie Hassan spent all year underwater in voter approval in New Hampshire while pre-primary polling showed Republican challengers neck and neck with her. 

But after a few million dollars of “interference” helped Maga loyalist Don Bolduc (Republican Governor Chris Sununu called him a “conspiracy theorist”) eke out a primary win, Hassan is now up by more than 10 points in the latest polls and an 87 percent favorite to win. In a split Senate and a five-seat House majority, races in the bag matter. 

But that’s not the reason Democrats were right to meddle.

The reason is that all the criticism assumes that there is a meaningful difference between the Republicans. There isn’t. Not anymore.

No matter how many noises today’s Republican candidates make about moderation, respect for freedom or commitment to democracy – many of them, perhaps, sincere and heartfelt – once in office they will be subject to the same backbone-melting political forces that have assailed all of their fellow party members. 

They’ll fold or get rolled.

Most will fall into Team Fold. When presented with unassailable evidence of impeachable behavior, all but 10 House Republicans voted against impeaching Trump. One hundred and thirty-nine of them – a majority – stepped over the glass shards and blood stains of the J6 insurrection to vote to overturn the 2020 election.

The captain of the spine-melt team is House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. His repeated, clumsy groveling to Donald Trump is even more embarrassing than Trump’s bootlicking abasement to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. His brief bid for freedom after the insurrection illustrates the point. McCarthy swiftly remembered that he needed Trump to fulfill his own ambitions, lied about ever turning, was presented with audio tape that he had, and stuck with the lie. 

Better to lie to reporters’ faces than get Truthed online.

The alternative in today’s GOP is to get rolled. The most famous example is of course Liz Cheney: dumped from her leadership post, ostracized, and ejected from office (as were 8 of the 10 who voted to impeach) for standing up for truth and the US Constitution.

This is all painful to say. 

As a congressional staffer, I worked closely with Republican counterparts to help pass important laws to infuse economic development aid to people in poor, rural counties and to expand health insurance coverage for young adults. I continue to feature conservative experts, colleagues and friends on my radio show and podcast to have thoughtful exchanges. I believe that’s healthy for democracy, informative for listeners and entertaining.

But electing a handful of additional Republicans of conscience over their redhat counterparts will not meaningfully reduce the threats to democracy. A Post headline last week laid out why: “Most of the House GOP has opposed each effort to protect elections.” Voter suppression and subversion are part of the GOP platform.

And the case that a pro-choice, or moderately pro-life, Republican Senator would help protect reproductive freedom was definitively crushed when Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins waved Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Coney Barrett through the turnstile.  

Fool me once, senator … but you don’t get fooled again.

On every issue of substance, decades of research has shown that elected Republicans have become not just increasingly conservative, but increasingly cohesive. And today’s elected Republicans stick together on the rightwing agenda about twice as much as they did a decade ago. The few remaining apostates have been subjected to the redhat inquisition, to be converted or electorally beheaded.

Ten years ago, I was the chief of staff for the Democratic US Senate candidate in New Hampshire. The Democrats chose not to interfere in the Republican primary. The Republican widely-perceived as “moderate” defeated a rightwing pro-life extremist by under 1,000 votes, and cruised to victory against us in the red wave of 2010. 

Kelly Ayotte then went on to a six-year stint as a “rank and file” Republican senator, voting along with her party whenever it mattered. Just like the more extreme candidate would have.

Would the more extreme Republican have voted differently? No. Might we have fared better against him? We’ll never know. 

Simply put, if this year’s meddling lands a few more Maga Republicans in office, we will never be able to tell the difference. 

But if it results in the Democrats holding the Senate, or even narrowing losses in the House, it will make all the difference.

Matt Robison covers public policy and governance for the Editorial Board. The host of Beyond Politics Podcast and Great Ideas Podcast, for WKXL in Concord, NH, he lives with his family in Amherst, Mass.

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