early and often

How Did the Election Deniers Supported by Democrats Do?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Imatges

Interfering with the other party’s primary to help squeeze out a sure loser to run against isn’t a new idea in American politics. But in the 2022 midterms, Democratic dollars boosting Republican election deniers caught way more negative attention than in past cycles. After all, it’s a bit hypocritical to fund an opponent spreading conspiracies about how the previous contest was rigged while stating in public that those same people pose an existential threat to democracy.

“We lose on every level,” said Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman who led an effort of ex-representatives decrying the practice. “We lose the moral ground on democracy as an issue, we lose trust in democracy, and we side with Trump in a primary. This is bad tactics, terrible strategy, and corrosive to our democracy.”

But David Turner, the communications director at the Democratic Governors Association  — which spent millions in three GOP primaries – said the strategy was not to handpick Democrats’ opponents. “The sense that we were quote-unquote buying for GOP candidates in these states is not how it was operated,” said Turner, whose organization placed ads in Republican primaries in Illinois, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In these states, the DGA looked for GOP candidates with solid polling leads who were endorsed by Donald Trump — basically the people who were going to win anyway — then bought ads detailing their far-right positions. “We didn’t want to let them be able to pivot,” he said.

Seven Republican candidates made it to the general election after Democrats offered some level of support in their primaries, though they might have won the GOP contest anyway with Trump’s endorsement, which was practically contingent on lying about the 2020 election. Here’s where the risky Democratic bet appears to have paid off and where it appears to have backfired.

Lost: Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania Governor

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general and the Democratic candidate for governor, spent around $855,000 on ads emphasizing the extremist bona fides of Doug Mastriano during the GOP primary. Mastriano reportedly served as the point person for Trump’s attempt to overturn the election in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the biggest oppo ad buy of the cycle, but Shapiro did spend more than twice the Republican’s budget for his own advertising. The stakes of this bet were particularly high in Pennsylvania, where the governor directly appoints the secretary of state, who’s responsible for certifying election results. But Mastriano’s long history of questionable choices (the Confederate-uniform pic, the Christian-nationalist ties, the fact that he was registered to vote in New Jersey last year) have made him one of the more controversial candidates this year. Shapiro’s ad buy worked, according to early calls on Tuesday night.

Lost: John Gibbs, Michigan’s Third Congressional District

Republican representative Peter Meijer of Michigan voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bought $400,000 in TV ads broadcasting the conservative ideas of a former Trump staffer named John Gibbs, who says the results in 2020 were “mathematically impossible.” While the ad technically encouraged viewers not to vote for Gibbs (he is “too conservative for western Michigan,” it said), it mostly just lists his unwavering support for Trump. Meijer wasn’t thrilled by the ad buy. “If successful, Republican voters will be blamed if any of these candidates are ultimately elected,” he wrote in August. “But there is no doubt Democrats’ fingerprints will be on the weapon.” He lost to Gibbs by just over 3,000 votes.

Lost: Don Bolduc, U.S. Senate, New Hampshire

Retired Army brigadier general Don Bolduc has said the 2020 election results should be “thrown out” and wants to repeal the 17th Amendment, which allows for the direct election of senators. He had a tough time fundraising during the GOP primary, but Democrats pitched in more than their share, with Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC spending $3.2 million to paint Bolduc’s primary opponent, Chuck Morse, as a “sleazy politician” beholden to lobbyists. Bolduc won the primary by about a point in order to face Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan — a race in which he has walked back a few of his more robust election-fraud claims.

Lost: Kari Lake, Arizona Governor

As Kari Lake’s lead in the final weeks of the GOP primary began to evaporate, the Arizona Democratic Party sent out an email to voters thanking her opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, for donating to Democrats in prior cycles. “As the Republican primary for governor continues to stir toxic infighting, the Arizona Democratic Party will always be grateful for Robson’s longtime support in helping elect Democrats up and down the ballot, including this November,” the email read. The stunt was mentioned at a rally for Lake — also a former Democrat — who went on to win the Republican primary. Democrats never paid for ads for Lake, making this case much different than the millions in ads spent in GOP primaries in other states. “It’s not just a distinction; they’re not even in the same category,” said David Turner of the DGA. But Lake’s die-hard election denial and experience as a TV news anchor made her a formidable opponent in Arizona in the general election against Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

Lost: Robert Burns, New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District

Burns, a former county treasurer, raised less than half as much money as his main opponent in the Republican primary for New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District. But a PAC called Democrats Serve spent more than $90,000 in TV advertising for Burns, calling him an “ultraconservative” candidate who would deliver on “America First” legislation in office. Burns won the primary by about three points to run against the Democratic incumbent, Annie Kuster.

Lost: Dan Cox, Maryland Governor

Maryland lawmaker Dan Cox was at a severe fundraising disadvantage in the Republican primary against Kelly Schulz, the state’s former commerce secretary backed by Larry Hogan, the popular and term-limited moderate-Republican governor. The DGA made up for some of that lack of exposure by spending close to $1 million on ads listing his positions, including his fight “to end abortion in Maryland” and push to “put armed guards in every school.” He has also said the 2020 election was “stolen.” In a state where moderate Republicans fare better in November, the $1 million placed on Cox was a fairly safe play. He went on to face Democrat Wes Moore, an Army veteran and investment banker, and lose in the general election.

Lost: Darren Bailey, Illinois Governor

Unlike the other far-right candidates backed by Democrats this cycle, Darren Bailey had his own benefactor: Billionaire shipping magnate Richard Uihlein spent more than $9 million promoting Bailey, who once said the Holocaust “doesn’t even compare on a shadow of the life that has been lost with abortion” and said in 2020 that the idea that Trump should concede is “appalling.” Still, billionaire Democratic incumbent J.B. Pritzker and the DGA spent more than $30 million in the GOP primary, calling out Bailey’s opponent for being a moderate. Bailey ultimately took his primary by over 40 points, but lost to Pritzker on election night, according to an early Associated Press call.

How Did the Election Deniers Supported by Democrats Do?