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Risky Bets

The Democrats Are Fools for Boosting Trumpist Republicans

The party is spending big to help some of the most extremist candidates in the country win their GOP primaries. It’s a mistake.

A close up of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, gesturing with her hand.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi

Every candidate running for the Republican nomination for Colorado’s 8th congressional district says Joe Biden won the 2020 election, except one: Lori Saine, a former state representative who currently serves on Weld County’s Board of Commissioners. Saine takes a different approach: She proudly boasts of being the most conservative candidate in a district that leans Republican but that Joe Biden won by five points in 2020. She has called her prospective Democratic opponent an “abortionist,” opposes efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19, and sued to block “red flag” gun laws from going into effect. In one recent campaign flier, she’s holding a rifle. The text reads: “The Biden-Harris-Schumer-Pelosi gang’s Socialist-Communist Agenda is reaching into every facet of our lives.”

And Nancy Pelosi’s political action committee, the House Majority PAC, is spending $46,000 on television ads to boost Saine’s candidacy.

The ad itself is framed as an attack, but it’s aimed at priming Republican voters to line up behind the right-wing bomb thrower. “Do we really want a conservative warrior as our next member of Congress?” a narrator solemnly reads. It notes that Saine “supported Donald Trump from day one and led the effort to audit the 2020 election in Colorado”; highlights her stances on abortion, immigration, and guns; and concludes by stating that Saine is “way too conservative for Colorado.” For Trump supporters, as well as most Republicans, it’s an effective pitch: Lori Saine is no Republican In Name Only; she loves Trump and has the same strong stances on big-ticket issues that GOP voters have.

It’s not just this Colorado district where Democrats have gone in Saine. Democrats are spending big in other Colorado races: PACs connected to the party are spending more than $1.5 million boosting far-right candidates for governor and senate as well. Some back gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez, who has made homophobic remarks in the past. Others support Senate candidate Ron Hanks, another election denier who attended the January 6, 2021, rally that served as a grace note to the assault on the Capitol. And it’s not just happening in Colorado: Democrats are also backing the very Trumpy Doug Mastriano for governor in Pennsylvania, in a race that could prove pivotal in the 2024 election.

The eleventh-dimensional chess-like thinking behind this spending is clear: The 2022 midterms will be tight, and boosting ultraconservatives more likely to alienate moderate voters might help Democrats in desperate need of a leg up. And yet this elliptical strategy is also incredibly reckless given the increasingly authoritarian turn within the Republican Party. If even one of the candidates mentioned above wins in November, Democrats would have played a role—and perhaps a decisive one—in the ongoing MAGAfication of the Republican Party.

As Dylan Matthews observed on Twitter, it also substantially undercuts the party’s message on democracy. If Democrats—and perhaps Nancy Pelosi, in particular—really believe that American democracy is under siege and that Trump and his disciples are an existential threat to the republic, then this is obviously not the fate they should be tempting. The risks are obvious; that Democrats seem blithe to them suggests a certain glibness behind the party’s messaging: On the one hand, they’re trying to motivate voters to come to the polls by raising legitimate concerns about what will happen to the country if Republicans retake power. On the other, they’re working behind the scenes to elevate many of the most dangerous Republicans running for office right now. It’s untenable for Democrats to ally themselves with their own executioners.

As I argued earlier this year, there’s also another basic problem at play: Democrats are badly misreading the electorate. Republican voters like loony, far-right candidates and are highly motivated to vote for them. What tamps down the enthusiasm of the Republican base is candidates who are more wishy-washy on the red-meat cultural issues that Trump and his ilk obsess over and exploit. Democrats are hoping that they can motivate moderate voters to turn out to block extremist Republicans but may very well, in turn, be inspiring Trump-loving voters who don’t often turn out to the polls to come out and vote for the non-RINO who managed to defeat a GOP moderate.

What makes this even more dangerous is that the Republican Party’s elite funders and leadership are working hand in hand to suppress and subvert the Democratic vote by any means necessary in states all across the country. Driving up the enthusiasm of GOP die-hards at a moment when it’s uncertain if every Democratic vote will end up getting counted is tremendously risky. Democrats are already facing a desperate situation. The 2022 midterms will almost certainly be very bad for the party and will likely be a bloodbath. But it’s not so bad that this gamble is worth it. Backing extremist candidates at this critical moment for democracy might put the party and the country in a far worse situation.