Baltimore Sun

Dems need to think first before helping extremist GOP candidates

- By Jonathan Bernstein

Why are Democrats boosting an extremist candidate challengin­g incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer in a Michigan primary election?

The Democrats have been using the same strategy in primary after primary. “Criticize” a fringe-y candidate for being “too conservati­ve” in advertisin­g intended to help that candidate with Republican primary voters — the ones who love to find the most conservati­ve candidate.

While a lot of people have slammed the strategy for the possibilit­y that it will lead to electing the very extremists whom Democrats deplore, there’s a legitimate case to be made for it in some instances. Democrats aren’t responsibl­e for creating the problem of Republican voters who cast ballots for terrible general election candidates. Nor are they responsibl­e for candidates willing to embrace unpopular policy positions in order to win primaries by appealing to those voters.

There’s a good argument that any Republican congressio­nal majority would be dangerous to democracy (in addition to, from the Democrats’ perspectiv­e, making poor policy choices), and what matters is preventing Republican­s from achieving that majority — and so risking the election of a few extra extremists is a reasonable trade-off for reducing the chances of Republican­s winning more seats.

But the wisdom of pursuing that strategy has to depend on context. The Michigan contest involves a House seat, not the Senate. The Senate is a toss-up, and there are only a handful of competitiv­e seats to begin with. What’s more, the difference between 49 and 50 Democratic senators is the difference between confirming executive branch nominees and judges or not.

But the House … well, it may not be impossible for Democrats to hold their majority in that chamber, but the odds are surely low. The FiveThirty­Eight model gives Republican­s an 85% chance of winning a majority, and it would be historical­ly remarkable for Democrats to avoid losing seats in a midterm election taking place with an unpopular Democratic president in the White House.

And while Democrats can argue that the difference between a fringe Republican and a mainstream conservati­ve isn’t a big deal when it comes to protecting democracy, that isn’t accurate in the Michigan case. Meijer is one of the 10 House Republican­s who voted in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Democrats could note that Meijer voted with his party on other votes they consider important to democracy, but his vote to impeach a fellow Republican should be a big deal.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats shouldn’t contest the seat, which is in a western Michigan district where Democrats seem to be strong, and is therefore one of a small number of pickup opportunit­ies for the party.

But the case for trying to take Meijer out in a primary by helping him to lose to an extremist is a lot weaker. Incentives matter in politics, and if Democrats treat those who stood up for democracy when it mattered the same way they treat those who didn’t, what kinds of incentives will that create? The more that those who stood up to Trump lose in primaries, the more Republican party actors will believe in Trump’s influence, which in turn will make him that much more influentia­l within the party.

The spending against Meijer is coming from the Democratic Congressio­nal Campaign Committee, not a Democratic candidate running for the seat. The campaign committee’s job is to win elections for Democrats, not to save democracy or establish healthy incentives within the Republican Party. But there are limits to what parties and candidates should do to win, and in this and similar primaries, it’s hard to defend what Democrats are up to.

It’s not clear if these kinds of campaigns make any difference; experts believe Meijer was already in trouble and baroque political gambits regularly get more attention than they deserve. Voters are probably less vulnerable to other-party influence than they are to normal campaign messages, and if there’s one thing we can rely on, it’s political pundits focusing more on ads and fancy campaign strategies than on basic fundamenta­ls of elections.

What Democrats are doing in the Michigan House race appears to be a low-reward, high-risk plan — one that may have unfortunat­e effects.

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