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‘What happens if they actually do win?’: Democrats grapple with efforts to prop up far right candidates

By Dan Merica, CNN

Efforts by Democratic campaigns, committees and outside groups to tilt the playing field in their favor by supporting extremist Republican primary candidates are sparking backlash as other Democrats warn the tactic risks putting conspiracy theorists and election deniers in office.

The latest flashpoint in the debate came this week when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running ads touting GOP candidate John Gibbs, who has the backing of former President Donald Trump, over Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former President after January 6, 2021.

“I believe Democrats should focus on helping Democrats win,” said Rebecca Katz, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now advising John Fetterman’s Senate campaign in Pennsylvania. “In this year of all years, why make that gamble in a Republican primary? It just seems like their priorities are out of whack.”

So far, millions have been spent in the meddling, with Democrats looking to boost more extreme candidates in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Colorado, all in the belief that one of their candidates will be more likely to win a tough race in November if they are facing a Republican who has echoed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

While meddling like this is far from exclusive to Democrats — Republicans have a long history of using different means to influence Democratic primaries — the disconnect has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Elected Democrats have been especially vocal, worrying that their party is playing a dangerous — and at times, disingenuous — game.

“I am not thrilled, for sure,” said Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat. “This does undermine our message about keeping campaigns as ethical, honest and transparent as possible.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, was even more aggrieved: “I’m disgusted that hard-earned money intended to support Democrats is being used to boost Trump-endorsed candidates, particularly the far-right opponent of one of the most honorable Republicans in Congress, @RepMeijer.”

And California Rep. Jimmy Gomez said the spending against Meijer and others “sends the wrong message” because the Democratic Party “shouldn’t be associated with any of these election deniers.”

“Right now, we’re in a fight for our democracy,” said Gomez. “What happens if they actually do win? Then we inadvertently helped elect you know, the people that will bring an end to the institutions we’re trying to protect.”

The attempt to boost Trump-backed candidates is far from exclusive to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In Colorado, the Senate Majority PAC attempted undermine businessman Joe O’Dea in the Colorado Senate primary by boosting Ron Hanks, a state representative who has roundly attacked the 2020 election and appeared in a campaign video firing a riffle aimed at what looks like a copy machine labeled “Dominion Voting Machine,” a nod to the voting machine company at the heart of many of the Trump backed conspiracy theories. The effort failed and O’Dea won the Republican primary and will face Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet in November.

Democrats were successful, however, in Maryland, where the Democratic Governors Association ran ads touting Trump-backed state Rep. Dan Cox over former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schultz, and in Pennsylvania, where unopposed Democratic nominee and current Attorney General Josh Shapiro ran ads promoting election denying state Rep. Doug Mastriano. Both Cox and Mastriano won their respective primaries.

Hanks, Cox and Mastriano did not return requests for comment.

Democrats involved in those efforts defended their actions, arguing that even if the attempt is risky, it is worth it to protect Democratic majorities in 2022.

JB Poersch, President of Senate Majority PAC, said that while their effort in Colorado did not lead to Hanks being the nominee, “we worked to weaken both their campaigns” and forced O’Dea to “burn through cash,” “embrace Trump” and saddled him with baggage ahead of the general election.

Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the committee running ads touting Meijer’s opponent in Michigan, said the committee is “laser focused on holding the House majority” and will do “what it takes to keep the speaker’s gavel out” Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s hands.

Shapiro responded to the criticism at the time by saying his campaign began the general election early when it was clear Mastriano was the leading candidate so that they could “demonstrate the clear contrast” and the “stark differences” between the Democrat and Republican in the race.

David Turner, strategist for the Democratic Governors Association, said the group is simply “educating the public on the MAGA extremism, and cowardice, of today’s Republican party,” something he argued was “essential to ensuring all citizens have the facts.”

“If this is a fight for the soul of the GOP, Trump is not only winning this battle, he’s unopposed among gubernatorial primary candidates,” Turner said. “It’s time for the GOP to look in the mirror and have a reckoning with itself, instead of trying to find someone else to blame.”

Whether the DCCC effort is successful or not, the winner of the GOP primary in Michigan’s 3rd District will face Hillary Scholten in November, the Democrat who came within six points of beating Meijer in 2020.

Meijer has responded to the spending by alleging hypocrisy among Democrats, saying that that “hypocrisy of it all” is “pretty galling” and “shameless given their high minded rhetoric about how they are the party of democracy.”

“Spare me that bullshit,” he said. “It just shows that nothing is above petty partisan politics, that at the end of the day, all that matters is the letter next to your name.”

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