On the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks at the U.S. Capitol, Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, took to Twitter not just to condemn that day’s violence but also to warn that the dark forces behind it were still very much alive and still a threat to the future of American democracy.
“We know that those who wanted to topple our democracy haven’t given up and they have moved their assault to state capitols and legislatures across the country,” Mr. Cooper wrote. “Governors must help lead the way in standing up for the truth, protecting our democracy and making sure that it’s the vote of the people that decides elections.”
The governor was right to sound the alarm. So it is deeply troubling to see Mr. Cooper and the organization he chairs — the Democratic Governors Association — support and finance a cynical political strategy to support pro-Trump candidates in Republican primaries, on the theory that they would be easier for Democrats to beat in the fall general election.
Anyone who proclaims concern about the future of democracy shouldn’t come within a whiff of these democracy-denying candidates, let alone help them win votes. But Mr. Cooper and other Democratic Party groups have been elevating Big Lie proponents over their moderate Republican opponents all year, making a mockery of the American political system.
It is a terrible approach on two counts. First, it’s profoundly irresponsible: What if these election deniers actually win? And second, if Democrats believe that democracy is in danger and they need Republican support to save it — or at least a reality-based G.O.P. in our two-party system — then they have weakened their standing as defenders of democracy by aligning with those who would thwart it.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
Maryland provides a vivid example of this foolishness. There, Mr. Cooper’s group threw its money, an estimated $2 million, toward ads boosting the candidacy of Dan Cox, a pro-Trumper who attended the rally leading up to the Jan. 6 riot and still preaches that Mr. Trump was cheated out of the presidency. The association reasoned that Democrats would stand a better chance of beating Mr. Cox in the general election than a moderate Republican like Kelly Shultz, the candidate backed by the popular outgoing governor, Larry Hogan. So far, this bizarre strategy has paid off. Mr. Cox won the primary.
The Democratic governors are not alone in their cynicism. In Michigan, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bought a television ad highlighting the close relationship between Mr. Trump and a pro-Trumper named John Gibbs who was seeking to oust a popular moderate, Representative Peter Meijer. Mr. Meijer was among the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump following the Capitol insurrection.
The basic playbook goes like this: On their face, the ads and mailers — the ad in Michigan reminds voters that Mr. Gibbs was “handpicked” by Mr. Trump — are framed as an attack and a warning. But its messaging, the Meijer camp believes, raised Mr. Gibbs’s appeal among the district’s conservative voters and gave him name recognition he could not otherwise afford. Mr. Meijer lost by roughly fewer than 4,000 votes on Tuesday to Mr. Gibbs.
Democrats have made similar moves in Colorado, Pennsylvania and California, where a Democratic super PAC funded an ad criticizing the bona fides of David Valadao, another of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach. Mr. Valadao narrowly defeated a right-wing candidate in June’s primary. Overall, the results have been mixed. The most extreme candidates in Colorado’s Republican primaries for Senate, governor and in the hotly contested 8th Congressional District did not win in June, despite millions of dollars spent by Democrats earlier this summer on TV ads, mailers and text messages seeking that outcome. In Illinois, however, Democrats were able to help a far-right Republican candidate for governor win his primary over a more moderate opponent backed by the G.O.P. establishment.
No one is suggesting this scheming is anywhere near as dangerous as the efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies — which include Republican lawmakers and officials across the country — to subvert democratic norms: pressuring state officials in Georgia to concoct votes for Mr. Trump and investigate false election fraud claims; ginning up slates of fake electors; discussing ideas to tamper with the Justice Department and firing the acting attorney general; bullying the vice president to violate his constitutional duty; whipping up supporters into a frenzy before they marched on the Capitol on Jan. 6; and resisting to commit to a peaceful transfer of power at so many turns.
As Mr. Cooper notes, the stakes for how the American experiment proceeds have never been higher. Of course, politics can be an unclean business, in which gamesmanship abounds. But even if this tactic helps win a few seats this year, it will come at a steep price, threatening the political survival of the few Republicans who are willing to rebuild a strong center-right party that will step up to protect democratic norms, an alternative that the United States desperately needs.
“It’s disgusting,” Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said of the Democratic strategy in a recent interview with CNN. Mr. Kinzinger is another Republican who voted for Mr. Trump’s impeachment. “You’re going to have election deniers win” in November. “So while I think a certain number of Democrats truly understand that democracy is threatened, don’t come to me after having spent money supporting an election denier in a primary, and then come to me and say, ‘Where are all the good Republicans?’”
Fair question. To defeat moderate Republicans will not strengthen the nation. It will mean there is less chance for the emergence of leaders willing to call out and condemn wrongdoing by their own party, as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger did during the Jan. 6 hearings. It risks never seeing another G.O.P. senator like Lisa Murkowski stand up for the codification of Roe vs. Wade. On a day-to-day level, it could mean the end of bipartisan lawmaking, such as the cooperation that brought together the $1 trillion infrastructure bill last year.
Of course, Democrats want to hold on to their slim House majority. But selling out democratic principles to do it? That is a disappointing low for the Democratic Party. President Biden and party leaders should renounce this repugnant and risky strategy.