Paying with fire and the already burned

Published July 14, 2022

By Thomas Mills

In Republican primaries across the country, Democrats have been helping Trumpist candidates with extreme views. They’ve been attacking more moderate GOP candidates, hoping to end up with more winnable races in November. Republican moderates, especially anti-Trumpers, are angry, accusing Democrats who bemoan the loss of democracy with aiding and abetting politicians who promote the Big Lie. 

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, spent almost $1 million to encourage Republican primary voters to support Doug Mastriano who sent busloads of Trump supporters to Washington on January 6. In Illinois, Democrats spent millions to help MAGA candidate Darren Bailey who now faces Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker.  In Colorado, Democrats failed to get more conservative candidates across the line in last week’s primary despite spending big in GOP gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primaries. 

Just hours after the mass shooting in a Chicago suburb on July 4, Bailey urged people to “Move on and celebrate freedom!” Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg tweeted, “Reminder: Gov. Pritzker spent $30 million so he could run against this MAGA jackass instead of a decent mainstream non-Trumpy Republican.” Another conservative, Sean Trende, replied, “Our Republic may well go down in flames in January 2025 because Josh Shapiro decided it would be cute to get a Republican loon nominated in a Republican wave year in a state that is a notch to the right of the country as a whole.”

 Democrats believe they are helping GOP candidates who are too far out of the mainstream to win in the general election. They’ve had success before. In 2010, they held onto the U.S. Senate despite a wave election because, in part, they helped make Todd Akin the Republican nominee for Senate after he said, among other things, that a woman who was raped couldn’t get pregnant. They also won races in Delaware and Indiana because GOP candidates were too far out of the mainstream. 

Goldberg and Trende reflect the views of other moderate conservatives who want to see the GOP reject Trumpism and get back to the movement conservatism of the Reagan Revolution. Even if Democrats are right and the MAGA candidates are more vulnerable, they’re still strengthening the MAGA wing of the GOP and short-term gains could result in long-term pain. If Democrats are wrong, though, then they are ceding power to anti-democratic forces, not just conservative ones. 

 Personally, I think the strategy is too risky. Wave elections tend to wash people into office who have few qualifications and, often, inept campaigns. In North Carolina, the 1994 and 2010 waves resulted in a bunch of Republicans who couldn’t have won in any other year and were elected because of the R behind their names, not because of any broad support. Most lost in the next election cycle. Promoting Trumpist candidates in the precarious state of our democracy feels like a very bad idea. The risk is not necessarily worth the reward. 

However, conservatives blaming Democrats for the election of extremists is a bit rich, too. Mainstream and moderate Republicans tolerated and even defended reactionary populists in their ranks for decades. They literally invited them into the party in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, pretending that conservative principles, not racism, drove positions like opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday.  They celebrated them when the Tea Party rose up in response to Barack Obama as long as they knew their place. Mainstream conservatives created MAGA by feeding their resentments, but not delivering on their agenda. Then, they were shocked when the reactionaries chose a brash conman who promised to deliver on their dreams instead of a conservative like the ones who had treated them like second-class Republicans for years.

The people electing GOP candidates who are out of the mainstream aren’t Democrats. They are the Republican base. The real rub with the Reagan conservatives is that they can’t win elections without the reactionary voters animated racial politics. Their movement is largely dead, run over by the MAGA minions on Donald Trump. 

Democrats may be playing with fire, but the movement conservatives have already been burned.