Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Democrats across the country were boosting far-right candidates in Republican primaries “in hopes that extremists will be easier for Democrats to beat in November.” In California’s Central Valley, Democrats have even gone so far as running a campaign ad attacking the incumbent Republican congressman for voting to impeach Donald Trump. In other races, like in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary and a Colorado Senate contest, they’re highlighting candidates who participated in the January 6 riot or who endorse the claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election — the same sorts of candidates that far-right plutocrats like Peter Thiel are supporting. All while the national party tries to use the January 6 hearings to paint Donald Trump and his wing of the GOP as existential threats to democracy and a right-wing Supreme Court repeals abortion rights and other important protections.
The logic of this strategy is clear: if the Republican candidate is unpalatable enough, voters who would otherwise vote Republican will go blue instead.
This tactic suggests that Democratic worries about the fate of our republic, in the face of a radical right Supreme Court undermining crucial rights and state Republican parties openly declaring the 2020 election rigged, are perhaps less than totally sincere: Democrats seem willing to promote far-right zealots and further endanger our democracy if that will help them win a few seats in the next election. But put that aside. More importantly, this approach is at best extremely shortsighted and at worst dangerous.
Suppose Democrats are right that many voters, given the choice between any Democrat and a Trumpian Republican, will opt for the Democrat — even despite President Biden’s dismal approval ratings, his party’s failure to enact most of its agenda, and increasingly severe inflation. If these far-right forces in the GOP are really as big a threat to democracy as Democrats say they are, is winning a few more midterms really worth elevating the profile and message of right-wing extremists? It doesn’t take much imagination or foresight to see how this strategy could massively backfire in 2024 and beyond, when a huge cohort of Trumpian Republicans who have just been given the media spotlight succeed in breaking through to Congress.
Of course, the Democrats’ maneuver might not even help them win elections this time around. They might just be helping even worse Republicans get elected.
Who can forget, after all, that many Democrats thought Donald Trump would be easier for Hillary Clinton to beat than the other GOP presidential contenders in 2016? In fact, Clinton campaign staff even strategized about how to elevate Trump during the primary for this very reason. According to Politico, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook’s “guidance was to hold fire on Trump during the primary and resist the urge to distribute any of the opposition research the Democrats were scrambling to amass against him,” a plan that “remained in place deep into 2016 as some senior aides stayed convinced that a race against Trump would be a dream for Clinton.” We saw how well that turned out.
Joe Biden and the Democrats were able to best Trump and congressional Republicans in 2020 by promising a restoration of decency, stability, and normalcy to American life. They succeeded in executing the strategy that Clinton did not in 2016: winning over wealthier white suburban voters even while they continued to shed white working-class votes. (As Chuck Schumer memorably put it: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.”)
By emphasizing the threat that Trump and company pose to American democracy in place of issues of policy substance — especially the bread-and-butter issues important to working-class voters — Democrats seem to be doubling down on their appeal to “Halliburton Democrats.”
But you can only get so much mileage out of this schtick. Bernie Sanders is right when he says, “You really can’t win an election with a bumper sticker that says: ‘Well, we can’t do much, but the other side is worse.’”
The political climate was very different in 2020, too. While in 2020, Biden and the Democrats were running against a deeply unpopular Republican president who had badly mismanaged a world-historic pandemic, the tables have now turned. Biden is even more unpopular than Trump was at this point in the latter’s term, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, and now inflation and a likely Fed-engineered recession are setting the Democrats up for an electoral bloodbath.
The Times’s Jonathan Weisman summarizes the danger concisely: “In a year when soaring gasoline prices and disorienting inflation have crushed President Biden’s approval ratings, Republican candidates whom Democrats may deem unelectable could well win on the basis of their party affiliation alone.”
So while it may have made sense to run a “You may not love me, but at least I’m not Trump” campaign two years ago, that strategy seems much less promising today.
The Supreme Court’s just-announced decision overturning Roe v. Wade makes the stakes of beating back the increasingly antidemocratic and reactionary GOP clearer than ever. If the Democrats are going to do so, they need to rebuild a working-class base and mobilize a broad coalition around popular programs that materially improve ordinary people’s lives — while also actually taking action on key issues like protecting abortion rights. Boosting far-right opponents, even if it happens to pay off this year, is a recipe for disaster in the long term.