Opinion

Can a Dem strategy punish the GOP for extremism, falsehoods?

Protesters at Laguna Beach complain about California's rules to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: mikeledray, via Shutterstock)

The delusional conspiracy theories unleashed on Americans to explain the defeat of former President Donald Trump have done more than raise the threat level to U.S. democracy and to hardworking elections supervisors. They are fracturing the Republican Party in ways its own officials would prefer to overlook while angling to regain control of Congress.

But a clever strategy by Democrats is putting a spotlight on this fault line — and could make Republicans pay a political price for indulging falsehoods and extremism.

This summer in west Michigan, the congressional campaign arm of the Democratic Party spent more than $400,000 to ensure that voters in the 3rd District heard about a far-right challenger who parrots lunatic Q-Anon rhetoric, John Gibbs, to the local incumbent Republican member of Congress, Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump.

In 2002, California Gov. Gray Davis spent millions of dollars to defeat former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan in the GOP primary.

If he made it to the fall ballot, Meijer might have stood a chance of re-election in a new district where voters favored President Joe Biden by more than 8 percent in 2020. But Gibbs, who narrowly won the primary with a lift from Democrats, faces very long odds against a second-time candidacy by Democrat Hillary Scholten. She garnered 47 percent in 2020 in a district that was then less friendly to her party. Do the math.

The faux outcry over this maneuver in some quarters is misplaced and based on selective memory or hypocrisy. Republicans have a long history of seeking electoral advantage by meddling in the decisions of other parties’ voters. In August 2000, for instance, Michigan’s then-Gov. John Engler told guests at the summer gathering of the Republican Governors Association in Chicago that he needed their help to get Green Party candidate for president Ralph Nader on his state’s general-election ballot. (Nader ultimately made it, but Al Gore narrowly won Michigan, though not the White House.)

Spending money to bolster the Green Party and its candidates is practically a cottage industry among Republicans and a coterie of wealthy donors. Their goal, often guided by GOP strategists, is to siphon off enough liberal voters from Democrats to allow Republicans to win.

This strategy gained headlines in the presidential election of 2016, during which Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus reportedly bankrolled the Green Party bid of Jill Stein. Stein’s vote totals in Michigan and Wisconsin were enough to throw those state contests to Donald Trump.

Remember the Watergate break-in, whose fallout ultimately drove Nixon to resign to escape impeachment? That was all part of the plot.

Such GOP meddling reappeared in 2020. Republicans invested in efforts to qualify the Green Party’s candidate for president, Howie Hawkins, for the ballot in multiple states.

We would be remiss not to cite the godfather of such meddling in another party’s primary, the crooked Richard Nixon himself. In 1971, he set in place an elaborate, secret scheme to derail the presidential candidacy of Democratic U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, whom Nixon thought to be his strongest opponent.

The plot worked like a charm. Muskie’s candidacy collapsed, and Nixon ended up with the hapless George McGovern, whom he demolished. Remember the Watergate break-in, whose fallout ultimately drove Nixon to resign to escape impeachment? That was all part of the plot.

The schism between realism and delusion is so pronounced it threatens to split the ranks of donors, dialers, and door-knockers crucial to winning GOP candidacies.

So spare us the outrage, Republicans, in decrying open and reportable Democratic efforts to lend Republicans enough rope to hang themselves by nominating the looniest candidates for public office. No one forces GOP voters to make that choice.

Spending money openly by Democrats to promote more extreme candidates so that they prevail in Republican primaries and pose a weaker challenge in the general election is not revolutionary.

In 2002, California Gov. Gray Davis spent millions of dollars to defeat former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan in the GOP primary, convinced he was a more formidable foe in the general election than his lesser-known, far-right rival Bill Simon. Davis went on to win that fall.

Since Trump has essentially taken over the Republican Party and remade it in his toxic mold, Republican officials now face a schism between realism and delusion so pronounced it threatens to split the ranks of donors, dialers, and door-knockers crucial to winning GOP candidacies.

As the victory in Kansas for abortion-rights advocates showed, even many Republicans are poised to reject a ballot option that carries the stench of extremism.

That Democrats have spotted a fissure in the Republican electorate and are spending in strategic places in a publicly disclosed fashion to exploit it is not reckless or unprincipled. It is a form of accountability for extremism. If deployed carefully, it may be a wise and winning strategy that defeats right-wing control of Congress.

Editor’s Note: Garry South, a Montana native, is a veteran Democratic strategist who has advised campaigns for President, U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, and mayor. Hans Johnson, a native of Michigan, has advised or led ballot-measure campaigns in more than 20 states. Both now live in Los Angeles.

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