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Moderate Democrats Claim to Want Democracy While Actively Funding Far-Right Candidates

Image via Shapiro for Governor

This past May, State Senator Doug Mastriano emerged victorious in his Pennsylvania primary, receiving the Republican nomination for governor with 43.8 percent of the vote. Mastriano, who has repeatedly argued that the 2020 election was stolen, allegedly attempted to aid Trump in overturning the election results at the January 6th insurrection  and wrote the Pennsylvania heartbeat bill to ban abortion, represents a far-right faction of the GOP. Given his primary victory over his more moderate opponents, he could deal a devastating blow to his Democratic opponent in the general election. However, Mastriono’s success was ultimately hailed as a victory for Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor. In a controversial move, Shapiro’s campaign sent out mailers and spent $840,000 in ads to promote Mastriano’s primary campaign. In comparison, Mastriano himself spent less than $370,000 on television ads. 

This decision to promote Mastriano marks a controversial shift in the Democrats’ strategy for the midterm elections: In short, get a far-right Republican nominated in the primaries and centrists will flock to the Democrat in the general. We have seen this strategy echoed all across the nation by Democratic candidates with mixed results, from the Pennsylvania governor’s race to the congressional election of Representative David Valadao (R-CA) in California. 

In Valadao’s case, he had voted to impeach Donald Trump. This fact was later weaponized against him in ads funded by the House Majority PAC, which is aligned with Nancy Pelosi. How can Democrats expect their Republican colleagues to work alongside them on legislation when they will then weaponize that very legislation to get them voted out?

This is a clear example of moderate Democrats’ disregard for the best interests of their constituents — while they very often claim to be the champions of bipartisan compromise, the popularity of this strategy suggests that many would rather potentially impede cross-party dialogue by pushing the GOP further to the extremes. Instead of shifting their views to align with the growing progressive movement in America, moderate Democrats would rather win their elections by strengthening a far-right presence to scare moderates into voting for them.  

This strategy was perhaps most famously employed by former Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in 2012 when she spent more money advertising for her far-right nominee hopeful Todd Akin in the last two weeks before his primary than he had done throughout his whole primary campaign. 

“There were three viable candidates and Todd Akin was kind of the weirdest one,” McCaskill said, speaking of the GOP primary field. “I knew he might say some weird things if he were nominated.”

And McCaskill was right. Akin’s hopes of winning the general election were then lost after an interview with a St. Louis television station where he said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down” when asked about abortion. Shortly after this, McCaskill began beating him by significant majorities in polling. 

This strategy worked for Claire McCaskill in 2012. However, it is no longer 2012. In the intervening years, there has been a surge in far-right activity. On its most basic level, this strategy is a gamble. There is no guarantee that a Democrat will win after the nomination of a far-right candidate. While this strategy could maybe be successfully employed in a district with a clear Democratic majority, Democrats are now using this approach too liberally. For instance, the assumption that Pennsylvania will vote blue after having voted red in the 2016 presidential election — and only barely voting blue in 2020 — is an incredibly dangerous wager, especially given Mastriano’s far-right views. Democrats are gambling with democracy for the short-term success of a majority in Congress. 

And to be clear, this strategy does not always work. Most famously, the 2016 presidential election is a prime example. The Clinton campaign actively sought to raise the relevance of “Pied Piper” candidates in the 2016 election, a term for extreme candidates they could manipulate the media into believing were the true voice of conservatism, as a ploy to shift more establishment Republican candidates to the right. Donald Trump was the ultimate example. The Clinton campaign argued that he would be the ideal Clinton challenger: a populist who no one would really vote for when push came to shove. I don’t have to tell you how that one turned out. 

If Democrats do not secure these elections, not only will there be another Republican in Congress or conversative in the Governor’s Mansion, but it will be a far-right one at that. More far-right views in Congress will shift the lens of what people view as “acceptable politics” further to the right. These radicals will be given more press, and their views will once again be debated in the public sphere. Just think, how often do you read articles about Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) versus moderate Congressman David Valadao? Effects of this shift, commonly called the “Overton Window” by political theorists, can already be seen. Research from the Pew Research Center shows that while polarization is occurring on both sides of the aisle, Republicans are moving further to the right than Democrats have to the left. Additionally, overall, Congress has become more conservative in the past 50 years. Long term, this could have disastrous effects on the state of our democracy.  

In addition, this strategy could potentially sow seeds of further ill-will with the few moderate Republicans left in Congress. For instance, with regard to the House Majority PAC running ads against him, Valadao said in a conversation with the New York Times, “to put [moderate Republicans] in a spot where we’re voting for these things and then try to use it as ammo against us in the campaigns, and put people that [moderate Democrats] potentially see as a threat to democracy in a position where they can become members of Congress, it tells me that they’re not serious about governing.” 

McCaskill’s 2012 strategy to fund far right candidates in the GOP primary has never been used on the scale we’re seeing in the 2022 midterms. Even McCaskill “urges caution,” claiming that Democrats are using this strategy too liberally. 

It is a dangerous and disgusting strategy. The moderate Democrats who engage in this tactic are more than happy to gamble with the rights and safety of Americans, with the potential for a larger far-right presence in Congress, just to keep their own seats. The American people need to hold these moderates accountable.