Struggling Dems look to a risky strategy: Meddling in GOP primaries to boost 'unelectable' Republicans

·West Coast Correspondent
·10 min read

When 2020 election denialist Doug Mastriano won last week’s GOP primary for Pennsylvania governor, a Guardian op-ed called him “one of the most radical gubernatorial candidates ever to receive a major party nomination.”

Fearing a loss in November, leading Republicans throughout the Keystone State had tried — and failed — to derail Mastriano’s bid. But at least one very prominent Pennsylvanian had been rooting for Mastriano all along, and spending like crazy to help him: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, the man Mastriano will now face on Election Day.

Call it the McCaskill Maneuver.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. (Matt Rourke/AP)

In the summer of 2012, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, also a Democrat, did something unprecedented, dropping nearly $2 million worth of ads designed to help an ultraconservative GOP congressman named Todd Akin secure his own party’s Senate nomination.

Why? Because McCaskill and her pollster had calculated that “Akin’s narrative could make him the winner among the people most likely to vote in the Republican primary — and maybe, just maybe, a loser among moderate Missourians,” McCaskill later explained.

Now, a decade later, the McCaskill Maneuver is making a comeback. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada and Oregon, Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been trying to boost Republicans they think they can beat — and weaken whoever they consider their biggest threat.

Next up could be Arizona, where “Democrats are doing something similar with Kari Lake” — the GOP’s Mastriano-like frontrunner — “by focusing their energies in the primary not on speaking to the base, but rather on painting her as too extreme for Arizona,” according to Arizona Republic columnist Elvia Díaz.

Doug Mastriano gestures to the cheering crowd during his primary night election party.
Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at his primary night election party in Chambersburg, Pa., on May 17. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Democrats in Arizona are rooting for Lake to win the state’s Republican Aug. 2 primary for governor,” the same paper’s Laurie Roberts recently reported. “They see her — and probably only her — as the Republican who Democrat Katie Hobbs can beat in November.”

The problem, however, is that 2022 isn’t 2012, and the shift Democrats are trying to capitalize on — an ever more extreme GOP base — is also what makes McCaskill-style meddling much riskier than it was 10 years ago.

In McCaskill’s day, the gambit worked. Akin came from behind to win the GOP nomination. McCaskill celebrated by shotgunning a beer with her daughters. Then she clobbered him by more than 15 percentage points on Election Day.

“We needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad — and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him,” McCaskill wrote in 2015. “[So] we spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill celebrates after declaring victory over challenger Rep. Todd Akin.
Sen. Claire McCaskill celebrates after declaring victory over challenger Rep. Todd Akin in the Missouri Senate race in 2012. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

That helps explain why Shapiro — the Pennsylvania attorney general who ran unopposed in that state’s Democratic primary for governor — has been following the exact same playbook. This spring, Shapiro spent more than $840,000 to air an ad all about Mastriano, a state senator who rose to prominence by falsely denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

The script was pure McCaskill, emphasizing how Mastriano is “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters.”

“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” the narrator intones. “Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?”

The answer among Republicans, at least, is yes: Endorsed by Trump, Mastriano won last week’s GOP primary by nearly 24 points. As McCaskill once put it, “When you call someone ‘too conservative’ in a Republican primary, that’s giving him or her a badge of honor.” The Shapiro ad boosting Mastriano was an overt attempt to “get him nominated and start disqualifying him with independent voters at the same time,” as McCaskill once said of her strategy against Akin.

Todd Akin and his wife acknowledge supporters before he makes his concession speech.
Todd Akin and his wife before his concession speech in 2012. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

No word on whether Shapiro chugged a Rolling Rock when Mastriano won. But his campaign is clearly hoping that Mastriano, like Akin, will prove too radical for the general electorate.

It remains to be seen whether this interference pays off or backfires. There are at least three reasons, though, why Democrats such as Shapiro should be less confident — and perhaps more cautious — than McCaskill was.

The first is that a midterm election year (like 2022) is different from a presidential election year (like 2012). In a midterm year, higher-propensity voters — voters who are likely to turn out every cycle, no matter what — have a disproportionate influence, and higher-propensity voters tend to be older, whiter and more Republican. In a presidential year, the scales tip toward lower-propensity voters, who tend to be younger, less white and more Democratic.

So McCaskill had a leg up in 2012 — when President Barack Obama was running for reelection and boosting down-ballot Democrats nationwide — that Shapiro won’t have in 2022.

Much the opposite, in fact. According to political analyst Harry Enten, Republicans enjoyed an average turnout advantage of 3 percentage points in midterms between 1978 and 2014 — an advantage that doubled to 6 points, on average, in the years when a Democrat occupied the White House. Demographics make midterms hard enough for Democrats. Backlash to Biden will only make this year’s midterms harder.

A flier with a sample ballot for Democratic primary candidates on a vehicle in Pennsylvania.
A flier with a sample ballot for Democratic primary candidates on a vehicle in Philadelphia on May 17. (Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Turnout in last week’s Pennsylvania primary hints at the stubbornness of this pattern. Roughly 1.34 million people voted in the state’s marquee Republican contests for governor and Senate. But only 1.26 million voted in the state’s competitive Democratic Senate primary, with even fewer (1.2 million) bothering to cast a vote for Shapiro (who, again, ran unopposed).

The second reason the McCaskill Maneuver might be riskier now than in 2012 is that it relies on a phenomenon that’s become less and less common over the last decade: swing voting. It used to be that a significant number of Americans would vote for a Democrat in one cycle and a Republican the next time around, or vice versa. Many would even “split their ticket,” voting for a Democrat and a Republican in the same election.

But growing polarization and negative partisanship — the idea that voters are motivated more to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals — have made such practices rarer.

McCaskill’s own career illustrates as much. In 2012, she won 15% of Missouri’s GOP vote and 22% of self-described conservatives, according to exit polls, even as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily carried the state. Six years later, in 2018, she won just 7% of the former and 8% of the latter — and lost reelection in what was otherwise a banner year for Democrats.

Sen. Claire McCaskill steps onstage to deliver a concession speech.
McCaskill steps onstage to deliver a concession speech in in 2018. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

So while it’s possible that Mastriano’s far-right positions on hot-button topics like abortion and election integrity will push suburban moderates into Shapiro’s camp, it’s also possible that the same message will energize the GOP’s increasingly MAGA base and solidify the party’s natural turnout advantage. It’s unclear which effect will be bigger.

Meanwhile, the stakes of losing the governor’s mansion to someone like Mastriano in 2022 are almost certainly higher than the stakes of losing a Missouri Senate seat to someone like Akin in 2012 — which is the third and final reason why Democrats should probably be careful what they wish for.

“I was fully aware of the risk and would have felt terrible if Todd Akin had become a United States senator,” McCaskill wrote in her 2015 memoir. “On the other hand, if you went down the list of issues, there was not a dime’s worth of difference among the three primary candidates on how they would have voted if they had become senators. Getting Todd Akin as the opponent in the long run made it more likely that Missourians would not be represented by someone who held those extreme views.”

Todd Akin and Newt Gingrich.
Akin, left, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich address members of the press in Kirkwood, Mo., in 2012. (Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

The dynamic now is different. The staunchly anti-abortion Akin, for instance, would have been one of 100 votes in a Senate that has shown little ability or appetite to legislate on the issue. But Mastriano has said that as governor he would “work our way” toward a total abortion ban from the moment of conception with no “exceptions” for rape, incest or the life of the mother — and if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade later this year as expected, then he and the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature could be free to do just that.

The risk may be even bigger on election issues.

Not only did Mastriano spend $3,354 in campaign funds to charter buses to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, where he himself “passed through breached barricades and police lines” near the Capitol. And not only did he later hold a campaign event in Gettysburg at which attendees signed a petition calling on Pennsylvania to decertify the state’s 2020 results. He has actually boasted that as governor he could meddle in the 2024 presidential election because he gets to “appoint the secretary of state, who’s delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything.”

Doug Mastriano outside the Pennsylvania state Capitol.
Mastriano speaks to supporters of then-President Donald Trump outside the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg after Joe Biden defeated Trump on Nov. 7, 2020. (Julio Cortez/AP)

“I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via the secretary of state,” Mastriano continued. “I already have the secretary of state picked out.”

No senator has that kind of power.

In 2012, Akin was leading McCaskill in the polls until he made one of the most outrageous comments in living political memory, claiming that women who are victims of what he called “legitimate rape” rarely need abortions because they rarely get pregnant. Ten years ago, that was enough to upend the election.

But those days might be gone for good. In 2016, many Democrats rooted for Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination because they assumed his own outrageousness would make him an easier target for Hillary Clinton. She lost anyway — even after Trump was caught bragging on tape about sexually assaulting women.

Mastriano has implied that he could award the state’s electoral votes to Trump in 2024 with the “stroke of a pen” — and he just won the GOP primary not in spite of but rather because of that implication.

Politics is now so polarized that what candidates say matters less and less, and what team they’re on matters more and more. Given that, Democrats in other key contests from Arizona to Wisconsin would probably be wise to remember St. Teresa of Avila’s old warning: More tears tend to be shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

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