Even as national Democrats set off alarms over the threats posed by far-right Republican candidates, their campaign partners are pursuing an enormously risky strategy: promoting some of those same far-right candidates in G.O.P. primaries in hopes that extremists will be easier for Democrats to beat in November.
These efforts — starkest in the Central Valley of California, where a Democratic campaign ad lashed Representative David Valadao, a Republican, for voting to impeach Donald J. Trump — have prompted angry finger-pointing and a debate within the party over the perils and wisdom of the strategy, especially in the middle of the Jan. 6 Committee’s hearings on the Capitol attack.
The concern is obvious: In a year when soaring gasoline prices and disorienting inflation have crushed President Biden’s approval ratings, Republican candidates whom Democrats may deem unelectable could well win on the basis of their party affiliation alone.
“I realize that this type of political gamesmanship has existed forever, but our country is in a very different place now than we were in previous cycles,” said Representative Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York. “For these Democratic groups to throw money at raising up a person who they know wants to tear down this democracy is outrageous.”
Republican targets asked how they were supposed to buck their leadership and take difficult votes if their erstwhile allies in the Democratic Party are lying in wait.
“I voted the way I voted because I thought it was important,” Mr. Valadao said of his impeachment vote. “But to put us 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 they 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.”
The Democratic effort extends well beyond Mr. Valadao’s race. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party singled out State Senator Doug Mastriano during his successful quest for the Republican nomination for governor, despite his propagation of false claims about the 2020 election and his attendance at the Jan. 6 protest behind the White House that immediately preceded the Capitol riot.
In Southern California, a Democratic candidate for the House, Asif Mahmood, flooded Orange County airwaves with advertisements that framed his run as a contest between him and an anti-abortion conservative, Greg Raths, aiding Mr. Raths by never mentioning the leading Republican in the race, Representative Young Kim, the incumbent and a much more moderate candidate. Instead, it highlighted Mr. Raths’ support for overturning Roe v. Wade and banning abortion and his affinity for “pro-Trump Republicans” — stances as likely to appeal to Republican primary voters as to rile up Democrats in a general election. (The effort did not succeed: Ms. Kim held off Mr. Raths and advanced to the November election against Mr. Mahmood.)
And in Colorado, a shadowy new group called Democratic Colorado is spending nearly $1.5 million ahead of the state’s June 28 primary to broadcast the conservative views of State Representative Ron Hanks, who hopes to challenge Senator Michael Bennet, an incumbent Democrat. Mr. Hanks’s views would be widely shared by Republican primary voters. Left unmentioned — for now — were Mr. Hanks’s bragging about marching to the Capitol on Jan. 6, his false claim that those who attacked the Capitol were left-wing “antifa” and his baseless insistence that the 2020 election was stolen by President Biden.
The Themes of the Jan. 6 House Committee Hearings
Alvina Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Democratic Colorado, would not say who was funding the group and insisted there was nothing untoward about the ads.
“It’s important to highlight who is running on the Republican side,” she said, adding, “The general election is around the corner.”
But Ms. Vasquez conceded that the group had only one target: Mr. Hanks, not the more moderate Republican in the primary, the businessman Joe O’Dea. The Bennet campaign declined to comment.
Democrats involved acknowledge the game they are playing, but insist that they have one job — to preserve their party’s slender majority in the House — and that they are targeting only those races where extremist candidates cannot prevail in November.
“House Majority PAC was founded on the mission of doing whatever it takes to secure a Democratic House Majority and in 2022, that’s what we will continue to do,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of the committee, which is affiliated with Democratic leadership.
The Pennsylvania attorney general, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, defended his campaign’s advertisement declaring a win for Mr. Mastriano in the Republican governor’s primary as “a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”
“What we did was start the general election campaign and demonstrate the clear contrast, the stark differences between he and I,” Mr. Shapiro said on CNN.
But it is not clear that Democrats will be able to maintain control over what they may unleash, especially in a year when their party’s president is suffering through record low approval ratings and inflation has hit rates not seen in 40 years. A Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday found Mr. Shapiro running only 4 percentage points ahead of Mr. Mastriano in the state’s crucial governor’s race.
No matter how self-assured Democratic insiders sound about their chances against extremist Republicans, the inherent danger of the playing-with-fire approach revives stomach-churning memories for some Democrats.
After all, they also thought Mr. Trump’s nomination in 2016 was a surefire ticket to a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, arguably created the modern genre of meddling in the other party’s nominating process, by running an ad in 2012 lifting the far-right congressman Todd Akin in the Republican Senate primary.
But Ms. McCaskill said the intervening years had raised the stakes too high in all but a few races.
“No one believed — including Donald Trump — that he would be elected president,” Ms. McCaskill said. “Campaigns need to be very sober about their decision-making. They need to be confident that they can prevail if the most extreme candidate is elevated to the nomination.”
Representative Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, was especially incensed that the Democrats’ House Majority PAC had spent nearly $40,000 in the Bakersfield and Fresno, Calif., media markets airing an advertisement castigating Mr. Valadao for his impeachment vote, while promoting his opponent as “a true conservative.”
It is impossible to say what impact the ad had, but with the votes in California’s 22nd Congressional District still being counted, Mr. Valadao is clinging to a 1,400-vote lead over Mr. Mathys for the final spot in the runoff in November.
“Pro-Trump Republican Chris Mathys: military veteran, local businessman,” the Democratic ad blared. “Or politician David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump. Republicans — it’s time to decide.”
The ad was broadcast during the run-up to the Jan. 6 hearings, which have lionized the Republicans who stood up to Mr. Trump. But by using those votes against those Republicans for political gain, said Mr. Meijer — another of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Capitol riot — Democratic campaigns had trivialized the issue, even as the hearings were elevating it as a mortal threat to the American experiment.
And that, Mr. Meijer said, made it easier for Republicans to dismiss the hearings as political theater.
Mr. Meijer, whose own primary against a Trump-backed opponent looms on Aug. 2, condemned the Democratic dissonance as “deep moralizing in the midst of par-for-the-course hypocrisy.” Already, he said, the loudest voices promoting his primary opponent, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who once accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief of performing satanic rituals, are those of Democrats, not Republicans.
For Democrats, the clear precedent is Ms. McCaskill’s almost legendary advertisement backhandedly promoting Mr. Akin to be her opponent in her 2012 re-election run. Two other Republicans in the primary that year would have been far more formidable opponents in a state trending Republican, with Barack Obama on the ballot for re-election. Mr. Akin, by comparison, was underfunded, undisciplined and, she said, “a little weird.”
The words in the ad might have been threatening to general election voters, but Ms. McCaskill’s list of particulars against Mr. Akin — read in a friendly, singsong narration — were music to the ears of Republican primary voters: “a crusader against bigger government,” with a “pro-family agenda” that would outlaw many forms of contraception. “And Akin alone says President Obama is a complete menace to our civilization.”
“Todd Akin, Missouri’s true conservative,” the ad said, using a pregnant pause, before finishing, “is just too conservative.”
Mr. Akin went on to win the Republican primary with a plurality of the vote, then lose to Ms. McCaskill by nearly 16 percentage points.
Ms. McCaskill said that in some districts, such as Mr. Valadao’s, where voters lean strongly Democratic, the tactic remains sound. But, she added, the stakes are far higher in 2022 than they were a decade ago.
“I made up my mind internally that I was OK with the idea that I could be responsible for him becoming a United States senator,” she said of Mr. Akin, adding that she could not have made the same calculation for some of the current crop of Republicans.
Beyond individual candidates, the Republican leadership has changed, Ms. McCaskill added. Her bet that Mr. Akin’s undisciplined propensity to mouth off paid off in spades when Mr. Akin famously said victims of sexual assault do not get pregnant because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Beyond the damage done by those words, Mr. Akin’s own party turned him into a pariah, shunning him and ensuring his defeat. Republican leaders cannot be counted on to cut off any candidates this campaign season, she said.
Ms. Rice made the same point, adding that every dollar spent meddling in a Republican primary is a dollar not spent directly to aid endangered Democratic incumbents.
“We should be backing our own front-liners,” she said, “not gambling on seditionists.”