Democratic Party groups have intervened in several Republican Party primary races this cycle by running ads which describe particular candidates as Trumpists who are too extreme for their states. When those candidates win, journalists and right-wing pundits point to the Democratic spending and suggest that it shows the party is not serious in its warnings that such candidates pose a threat to democracy.
I don’t think it is wise for Democrats to spend money this way. But reporters are missing a key aspect of the story: To the extent that the Democratic ads are working, it is because given the opportunity, the Republican base wants to nominate illiberal, antidemocratic candidates. The GOP’s extremism is a demand-side problem.
Take Tuesday’s Maryland gubernatorial primary. Larry Hogan, a Republican Trump critic, had governed the blue state for eight years. Facing term limits, he supported as his successor Kelly Schulz, who had served as commerce secretary and labor secretary in his administration. Schulz’s opponent was state Del. Dan Cox, a QAnon adherent and election conspiracy theorist who described former Vice President Mike Pence as a “traitor” for refusing to subvert the 2020 presidential election on Donald Trump’s behalf. Trump endorsed Cox in November; the next day, Hogan described the candidate as a “wackjob.”
It was clear early in the race that a Trump-backed “wackjob” was exactly who Maryland Republicans wanted. In February, the Democratic Governors Association released a poll showing Cox with an 8-point lead over Schulz. The group spent roughly $1.2 million over the following months running ads about his candidacy, which CNN reported were “intended to boost Republican support for Cox but diminish his standing among moderates headed into November’s general.”
Here’s what the ad said:
NARRATOR: Meet Dan Cox, Donald Trump's hand-picked candidate for Maryland governor. Cox worked with Trump trying to prove the last election was a fraud. One-hundred percent pro-life, he's fighting to end abortion in Maryland and Cox will protect the Second Amendment at all costs, refusing to support any federal restrictions on guns, even pushing to put armed guards in every school. Dan Cox: Too close to Trump, too conservative for Maryland.
On Tuesday, Cox won the Republican primary by 16 points.
Is the reason that the Trump-endorsed extremist won by a landslide that Democrats ran ads calling him a Trump-endorsed extremist? That gives too much credit to the DGA – and too little blame to the Republican base. Trump-backed election deniers are winning GOP primaries in races across the country, regardless of whether the Democratic Party gets involved.
The explanation for what happened on Tuesday is simple: Cox won by a landslide because Maryland’s Republican voters wanted to support a Trump-endorsed extremist. And the GOP will cease to be the party of election deniers and conspiracy theorists whenever its base decides that they would rather it be something else.