A Democratic strategy to boost conspiracy-minded conservatives in GOP primaries has sparked a storm of controversy within the party.
The simmering battle pits Democrats who argue winning races at all costs justifies the means against critics who warn the party risks losing the moral high-ground in the debate over election integrity.
The tensions are swirling around a decision by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Michigan GOP primary — money designed to bump off the moderate incumbent, Rep. Peter Meijer — who is one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol l
Meijer is also considered to be the tougher opponent for the Democrats in November’s general election, where the party is in great danger of losing the House majority.
The ad buy has fueled howls of protest from a number of rank-and-file Democrats, who are bashing Maloney’s move as a race-to-the-bottom tactic that will erode the country’s already diminished faith in a cooperating and functional government.
“I’m so pissed I can’t see straight, because I think Peter Meijer did the right thing,” said one lawmaker, who spoke only anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. “We’re sending a message to Republicans that if you do the right thing, or if you vote with us, now we’re going to go after you.
“Is that really going to encourage people to work together? Try to find solutions?” the lawmaker continued. “Is that what our values are?”
The criticisms have prompted an equally spirited response from another set of Democrats who are rushing to Maloney’s defense. In a high-stakes election year, his supporters contend, the party is all but obligated to embrace a realpolitik approach that recognizes political campaigning to be a results-based — and sometimes brutal — contact sport.
“Politics ain’t beanbag. We’ve gotta use every strategy we possibly can to make sure that we’re as successful as we can be in November,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who headed the Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2020 cycle.
“We’re grumbling about going after a sitting Republican where we have a shot of picking up that seat?” she added. “Look, I think Peter Meijer’s a decent guy, too. But this is about the numbers. We’ve got to do everything we can to keep the majority, or we’ve got Kevin McCarthy as the Speaker of the House.”
The DCCC ad causing controversy centers on Meijer’s primary challenger: John Gibbs, a high-level housing official under the Trump administration who has promoted a long list of conspiracy theories and false accusations against Democrats.
The DCCC’s $425,000 ad campaign appears to attack Gibbs, saying he’s “too conservative” — and too close to Trump — to represent the people of Michigan’s 3rd District.
But in the context of the primary fight, that accusation might help Gibbs defeat Meijer.
The district lies in a conservative region where Trump remains popular among GOP primary voters, and Meijer’s vote to impeach Trump could hurt him with GOP voters.
The underlying motive of the DCCC’s gambit has not been lost on Meijer, who is accusing Democrats of hypocrisy.
“They’re talking out [of] both sides of their mouths,” Meijer said.
The gambit also comes as the House panel investigating Jan. 6 has cast a friendly spotlight on Republicans — like Meijer — who stood up to Trump on Jan. 6 and in the weeks and months that followed. The panel separately has criticized those Republicans who echoed or ignored Trump’s lies about the election.
Gibbs has championed Trump’s false assertions of a “stolen” election — and won a coveted endorsement from the former president in the process. He’s also made the sensational claim that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman was a Satanist.
Yet it’s clear the DCCC would like Gibbs to defeat Meijer in the primary, in the hopes Gibbs would then be defeated in the general election.
“Under a different context it would be almost humorous,” Meijer added. “It just shows you that you can have all the high-minded rhetoric you want, the Democrats are always going to put party ahead of country.”
This isn’t the only race where Democrats or Democratic groups have got involved in GOP primaries to boost election-denying candidates in the hopes of winning general elections. In Maryland, the Democratic Governors Association spent more than $1.16 million on ads highlighting Trump’s endorsement of Dan Cox, who defeated a more moderate candidate in the primary.
In Pennsylvania, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, spent nearly $1 million highlighting the views of Doug Mastriano, a Republican who argued the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Matriano won the primary and will now face Shapiro in the general election.
Democratic critics of the DCCC’s ad campaign in Michigan have warn that the party’s efforts to boost election-denying Republicans not only carries the risk that those candidates could ultimately win, but also undermines the Democrats’ case that — in the wake of Trump’s “Big Lie” — they’re the party of election integrity.
Democrats, said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), have taken “the high ground on integrity and honor and faith in our electoral system.”
“And I think this spends a lot of that hard-earned equity,” he added.
“Our country is struggling with its faith in government, its trust in our electoral system,” he continued. “And I think when a major political party actually promotes the very people that we have articulated time and time again are a great risk to our country, … it is dishonorable.”
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who leads the DCCC’s efforts to protect vulnerable frontliners, noted another reason some Democrats have been left frustrated by the campaign against Meijer: It represents campaign cash that wasn’t spent protecting vulnerable incumbents.
“Some members may say, ‘Well, if you don’t have money to help me get reelected because you spent $500,000 of our dollars on these other races’ — that’s a tough situation to be in,” he said.
Still, Bera also emphasized that the DCCC exists for only one reason — “To win races,” he said — and there are powerful, like-minded Democrats also coming to Maloney’s defense this week.
“The political decisions that are made out there are made in furtherance of our winning the election,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday, “because we think the contrast between Democrats and Republicans — as they are now — is so drastic that we have to win.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, also defended the sharp-elbowed campaign tactics. The DCCC might be playing in Michigan’s GOP primary, he said, but a far different group will decide Meijer’s fate.
“The threat to Peter Meijer,” he said, “is from Republican base voters.”