A Bad Democratic Bet in the G.O.P. Primaries

A Bad Democratic Bet in the G.O.P. Primaries

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In February, 2021, a few weeks after Peter Meijer became one of only ten Republican members of Congress to vote to impeach Donald Trump for incitement of insurrection, he met with some of the people in his district, in western Michigan, for a virtual town hall. One of them said that she was “very disappointed” by his vote. Why, she asked him, “aren’t you doing what your constituents want you to do?”

That question “weighed on me,” Meijer replied. He’d known that many of the Trump-supporting voters who’d just sent him to Congress—it was his first term—would believe that he’d betrayed them. Thinking about their reaction made him “heartsick.” But what he asked himself, he said, was, “How do I balance that immediate feeling with what we need to do as a country, what I feel my party needs to do, and where I hope we can go?”

Meijer’s first term in Congress will be his last, at least for now. On Tuesday, he narrowly lost his primary to John Gibbs, a former missionary and Trump Administration official who has said the 2020 election results contained anomalies that were “simply mathematically impossible.” In large part, of course, Meijer lost because Trump targeted him for what he called, at a rally this spring, Meijer’s “fake vote” to impeach him. Trump also made fun of his name. “A guy who spells his name ‘M’-‘E’-‘I’-‘J’-‘E’-‘R’ but they pronounce it ‘Meyer’—the hell kind of a spelling is that?” (The name is actually familiar in the Midwest, where the family has long owned a chain of eponymous big-box stores.) Trump then turned the microphone over to Gibbs, who called the former President “a model for all the regular, decent people,” and told the crowd, “Let’s start being a little bit more ferocious—let’s have some sharp teeth when we go, GRRAARRR!” (As he growled, Trump grinned.)

But another problem for Meijer had to do with how some Democratic Party organizations have answered the question that he posed last year about the balance between the allure (or the illusion) of immediate gain and what their party and the country need—and also about how the crisis of Trumpism might play out. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent half a million dollars on an ad boosting Gibbs, apparently on the theory that he’d be easier to beat than Meijer in the midterms this November. Gibbs, whose campaign raised far less money, has promoted not only Stop the Steal but also conspiracy theories involving Democrats and satanic rituals. And yet the ad that the D.C.C.C. paid for shows him in what appear, at a glance, to be serious White House meetings with Ben Carson, whom he served under in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Trump. (Gibbs, who is Black, also served on Trump’s 1776 Commission, which was meant to counter the 1619 Project.) A viewer who had the ad on mute, and missed the caption saying that Gibbs was “too” conservative, might think that it had been paid for by Gibbs’s campaign.

In an op-ed that Meijer published the day before the primary, in Common Sense, Bari Weiss’s newsletter, he lashed out at Democrats who talked about the existential threat to democracy posed by election deniers, then boosted Gibbs’s campaign. Meijer is right to be angry. He also noted that his contest wasn’t the only one in which Democratic Party entities or candidates had spent money in an attempt to secure the Republican nomination for a truly extreme candidate. He mentioned the Maryland gubernatorial primary, which was supposed to be a test of the relative influence of the outgoing governor, Larry Hogan, representing what’s left of the Never Trump wing of the G.O.P., against that of Trump. The Democratic Governors Association effectively came in on Trump’s side, spending more than a million dollars to promote a candidate, Dan Cox, who chartered buses to Trump’s January 6th rally and that afternoon tweeted, “Mike Pence is a traitor.” (A representative for the D.G.A. told the Times that it was focussed on “winning these elections in November” and that “this lane wouldn’t even exist” if there weren’t extreme Republicans available for it to push.) Meijer also cited the Pennsylvania governor’s race, in which the campaign of the Democratic nominee, Josh Shapiro, spent some of its funds to boost Doug Mastriano, who played a part in the Trump team’s “fake elector” scheme, and to similar efforts in Illinois and Colorado.

Meijer didn’t even get to the governor’s race in Arizona, where the state’s Democratic Party put out statements in an apparent attempt to undermine the less extreme candidate, Karrin Taylor Robson, who had been endorsed by Mike Pence, for the presumed benefit of Kari Lake, who has said that Arizona should “decertify” its 2020 election results. (Joe Biden won the state.) At a rally in late July, Lake said, “President Trump taught us how to fight, and I took a few notes!” As of Wednesday afternoon, the race was too close to call. Other Trump candidates prevailed in Arizona, notably Mark Finchem and Blake Masters, who, respectively, will be the G.O.P. nominees for secretary of state and for the U.S. Senate.

The plan, such as it is, is that voters will recoil from these candidates and turn to the Democratic Party as a bastion of sanity. That’s a harder argument to make when playing games like this. Many Democrats recognize that, too. “It’s dishonorable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s just damn wrong,” Representative Dean Phillips, of Minnesota, told Politico. In the same piece, Representative Jason Crow, of Colorado, called the ploy “very dangerous” and “substantively risky.” The implied risk is that the extreme candidate could actually win. It looks as though both Mastriano and Lake have a shot, and, as governors of swing states, they would be in a position to interfere with the proper conduct of the 2024 Presidential election.

And plenty of election deniers have won primary races across the country, on Tuesday and in earlier primaries, without any help from Democrats. All three of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for Missouri’s open Senate seat were thorough Trumpists; the day before the primary, the former President announced that he was endorsing “Eric,” a name that two of the candidates shared. (Eric Schmitt, one of the seventeen state attorneys general who filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 results in a number of states, and now spends a good deal of his time suing the Biden Administration, was the winner.) Those results only underscore the peril in bolstering what could become the dominant wing of one of the United States’s two major parties. Such candidates can’t be treated as part of a comically unelectable, and thus harmless, fringe.

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