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Are Democrats are meddling in Republican primaries?

In the final days of a notably nasty Republican Senate primary race in Ohio, a conservative candidate is getting an unusual boost from the Democratic Party.

As my colleague Michael Bender reported last week, a Democratic group is spending $2.7 million on an ad highlighting the conservative credentials of Bernie Moreno, the Cleveland-area businessperson backed by former President Donald Trump.

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The ad says Moreno is a “MAGA Republican” who is “too conservative for Ohio,” describing him in terms that are likely to make him more appealing to conservative Ohio primary voters. Party strategists believe Moreno will be an easier opponent for incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the general election.

Meddling in Republican primaries has become a regular tactic for Democrats in recent years. But it has become more ideologically complicated as President Joe Biden campaigns on the need to defend democracy from Trump-aligned Republicans like Moreno.

In his Senate bid, Moreno has embraced Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election, repeating the former president’s discredited charges of a “stolen” election and calling those prosecuted for storming the Capitol “political prisoners.”

The risk of such primary meddling is that Democrats could undercut Biden’s message about the threat to democracy and further erode trust in elections. Not to mention, of course, the chance that Moreno could win in November.

A History of Meddling

One of the earliest cases of Democrats’ intervening in a Republican primary took place in 2012, when Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the Democratic incumbent, ran ads to help Todd Akin, a conservative Republican congressman, win his party’s nomination.

McCaskill knew that Missouri was trending to the right, and that her approval rating would be dragged down by President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the state. Her best chance for reelection was to paint herself as the “reasonable moderate” in the race. And for that, she needed an extreme Republican opponent.

Her team poured $1.7 million into ads in the Republican primary race, casting Akin as “the most conservative congressman in Missouri” and “Missouri’s true conservative.”

The tactic succeeded. After Akin won the Republican nomination, McCaskill went on to defeat him in the general election.

Boosting the Far Right

The strategy has become more popular in recent years, especially as Republican primary races have tilted ever more to the right.

In 2022, Democrats spent about $53 million lifting far-right Republican candidates who questioned or denied the results of the 2020 election, according to The Washington Post, largely in states that lean Democratic.

Most of that spending was in Illinois, where the party successfully promoted a Republican candidate for governor, Darren Bailey, who said it was “appalling” that Republicans in the state wanted Trump to concede the 2020 election. (Bailey is now running for a House seat.)

The tactic has carried over to this cycle. This month, Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat running for Senate in California, spent $10 million to elevate Steve Garvey, a Republican former baseball star. Garvey came in second in the state’s “jungle” primary, where the two top finishers advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation. Schiff is widely considered to be on a glide path to the Senate.

The approach has also played out in some swing states. In the Pennsylvania governor’s race in 2022, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, ran an ad during the Republican primary highlighting the conservative credentials of Doug Mastriano, a right-wing candidate. Mastriano won the primary, then Shapiro beat him in a landslide.

Dangerous Territory

Some Democrats say the tactic risks undercutting a central campaign message about the dangers to democracy if Trump retakes power.

“It is risky and unethical to promote any candidate whose campaign is based on eroding trust in our elections,” wrote nearly three dozen former Democratic House and Senate lawmakers in 2022. “Our democracy is fragile, therefore we cannot tolerate political parties attempting to prop up candidates whose message is to erode our dedication to fair elections.”

There’s also a big difference between meddling in a blue state or a swing state, and one like Ohio that has become reliably Republican in recent elections. In 2020, Trump beat Biden by 8 points in the state. Two years later, JD Vance, the Republican Senate nominee, won by 6 points.

Ohio’s conservative terrain poses real peril for this meddling strategy. If Democrats help Moreno become the Republican nominee, that could give Brown an advantage. But Democrats could just as easily end up helping to elect the very kind of candidate they most vocally oppose.

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