“A Cynical Low for the Democratic Party,” huffed the New York Times editorial board. “It’s dishonorable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s just damn wrong,” said Representative Dean Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat. That summed up much of the reaction to the Democratic Party’s strategy to help election deniers win Republican primaries to help Democrats win in November.
The numbers are in, and the Machiavellian scheme worked. In the six races where Democrats got the Republican nominee they wanted—after running reverse-psychology ads highlighting the candidates’ conservative bona fides—Democrats won. They easily flipped governorships in Maryland and Pennsylvania and kept Illinois in the Democratic column. New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan started the year as one of the more vulnerable Democratic U.S. senators; she was reelected by almost 10 points. New Hampshire Representative Ann Kuster, also a Democrat, similarly coasted against an election denier.
In Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Hillary Scholten lost in 2020 to Republican Peter Meijer, who broke party ranks and voted to impeach Donald Trump. Merciless Democrats boosted Meijer’s GOP primary opponent, the election denier John Gibbs. With Meijer out of the way this year, Scholten ran again and beat Gibbs by 13 points last week.
Okay, so it worked out this time. But wasn’t it morally wrong? Didn’t it undermine the Democrats’ credibility as defenders of democracy if they were willing to risk election deniers being nominated and elected?
It wasn’t, and it shouldn’t.
The Times editorial board argued in August that “if Democrats believe that democracy is in danger, and they need Republican support to save it—or at least a reality-based GOP in our two-party system—then they have weakened their standing as defenders of democracy by aligning with those who would thwart it.” This seemingly high-minded argument overlooks two big things: the state of the Republican Party and who can fix it.
According to a Washington Post analysis, “Among 419 Republican nominees for the US House, 230, or 55 percent, are election deniers. And the vast majority of those, 147, are running in safely Republican districts.” Those 147 compose the majority of the House Republican caucus, most likely determining who becomes speaker. (In 2021, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy voted against certifying the Electoral College results from Pennsylvania and Arizona. Later that year, he ousted Liz Cheney from the Republican caucus leadership, and this year he cheered her Republican primary opponent.)
Election-denying Republican representatives are reflective of Republican voters. In exit polls taken during last week’s midterm elections, 35 percent of voters said Biden was illegitimately elected. Not surprisingly, they were nearly all Republicans. (Of the 61 percent who said Biden is legitimate, only a quarter were Republicans.)
Pro-democracy Republicans exist, but they don’t dominate the party. For Democrats to stand aside and make it easier for a few more rational Republicans to win elections wouldn’t change the balance of power inside the GOP. Control of the House can come down to very few seats, as we’re seeing. Democrats don’t have the luxury to help out any Republican, even a pro-Trump-impeachment one, if that Republican is going to play a supporting role in giving House control to election deniers.
While the Times fretted that Democrats sullied their position, the midterms prove otherwise. High inflation should have wrecked the president’s party, but the issue of democracy weighed down Republicans. The Associated Press’s survey of more than 94,000 midterm voters found that for 44 percent, the “future of democracy” helped determine their vote, running just behind inflation at 51 percent.
Democrats, led by dramatic speeches from Biden and Barack Obama in the campaign’s closing days, made the case that “democracy is on the ballot.” Why? Because there were many Republicans on the ballot who were openly not committed to democracy. Some election deniers tried to scrub their past, such as Blake Masters, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Arizona. During the Republican primary, Masters said in an ad, “I think Trump won in 2020.” In the general election, he tried to pivot with “Joe Biden is absolutely the president. I mean, my gosh, have you seen the gas prices lately?” This pirouette was a flop. Masters was too extreme for such gymnastics to work.
Masters got the Republican nomination without Democratic help, as was the case for most election-denying candidates. Democrats only intervened in a few primaries where the risks of abetting and electing deniers in November were low. Republicans have infected themselves with the authoritarian virus, and only Republicans can administer the cure.
Yes, democracy needs two reality-based parties. If you are familiar with my past writings, you know I’m a steadfast supporter of bipartisanship, even defending the filibuster. Democrats should recognize that rational Republicans exist and find ways to work with them in Congress, but not on the campaign trail. They’re under no obligation to handicap their candidates.
Despite an uplifting week in which Trump-backed candidates were rebuffed from Pennsylvania to Nevada, the antidemocratic current in the Republican Party is hardly contained. The GOP needs to change for the good of the country. But parties only change when they get tired of losing. The best thing Democrats can do for Republicans is to beat them—and beat them badly. That’s what Democrats did this year. Now it’s up to Republicans to get the message.