Democrats successfully gamed the Missouri GOP Senate primary to convince Republicans to nominate Rep. Todd Akin in 2012. The rest is history.
In August 2012, Republican primary voters threw endangered Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill a lifeline: Rep. Todd Akin. Even before Akin infamously referred to "legitimate rape" after the primary, McCaskill's team bet that Akin was the most flawed Republican candidate they could face. McCaskill's other would-be opponents, businessman John Brunner and former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, had their problems ,but nowhere near Akin's vulnerabilities. When the GOP nominated Akin it appeared that McCaskill had just gotten incredibly lucky.
However, it was far from just luck. McCaskill's campaign acted early to subtly but effectively encourage Republican primary voters to choose Akin over Brunner or Steelman. McCaskill ran ads calling Akin "pro-family," and "too conservative for Missouri," terms that appealed to Republican primary voters. Without knowing it, Republicans did exactly what McCaskill wanted and handed her her ideal opponent. McCaskill's strategy was quickly vindicated: Akin ran one of the worst campaigns in recent memory and the once-endangered McCaskill won by 55-39 percent margin.
McCaskill successfully pulled off a campaign tactic known as "ratfucking." The goal of ratfucking is usually to get the opposing party to nominate a weak candidate, or to pass over a strong candidate. While the term originated with Richard Nixon's manipulation of the 1972 Democratic primary field, in recent years it has been Democrats who have successfully pulled it off. Along with McCaskill, Democrats ratfucked a Florida House primary in 2012 to benefit now-Rep. Alan Grayson. Additionally, Sen. Harry Reid's machinations in the 2010 Republican Senate primary helped ensure that the GOP nominated the very flawed Sharron Angle. Still, while ratfucking can make all the difference in deciding what party controls a seat, it's not the most common practice. It can be very expensive and difficult to pull off, and some may get cold feet about interfering in another party's primary.
What follows is a guide to ratfucking and how to effectively pull it off. While there are certainly some ethical questions about meddling in another side's primary and embracing a Nixonian tactic, it is still a useful tactic to understand. Additionally, in an era in which House Republicans have gerrymandered their way to a majority no matter what voters say, ratfucking is a weapon Democrats can't leave by the wayside.
Head over the fold for a closer look at ratfucking tactics.
Before engaging in ratfucking, it's important to consider a few things.
Is it worth trying?: Unless your campaign or outside group has more money than it knows what to do with, you have to decide how to best spend your finite resources. If there isn't one viable Republican candidate who looks particularly strong or weak, it's probably better to just conserve your money for the general election.
Can my preferred opponent win?: There's not much of a point in spending money to prop up someone who is guaranteed to lose the primary. Primaries are fluid and unpredictable but even so, there are usually some candidates who just don't have the resources or name recognition to go anywhere even with your help. For instance, if you're a Montana Democrat you'd rather face little-known conservative state Rep. Champ Edmunds than the much more formidable Rep. Steve Daines in this year's Senate race. But with Edmunds having virtually no name recognition or money, he's just not a good investment. It may make sense to take a chance on someone who's unlikely to win their primary, but not on someone who's all but guaranteed to lose.
Can I afford it?: If your campaign has its own contested primary to deal with, the answer is probably no. It's far better to win your nomination first before focusing on the Republicans. This is less of an issue for partisan outside groups like the DCCC or House Majority PAC. They probably don't need to spend in the Democratic primary and can instead concentrate on ratfucking the Republican primary.
If you've answered yes to all those questions, it's time to review some of the best practices for ratfucking.
Use the right (wing) language: This is the most important part of the strategy. The trick to successful ratfucking is to get Republican primary voters to support your preferred candidate while making them think it was their idea. The key is to use language that makes it look like you're attacking Joe Unelectable while in fact you're propping him up. For example, Claire McCaskill called Todd Akin "Missouri’s true conservative" and "a crusader against bigger government." To Republican primary voters, all this made Akin seem more appealing. The St. Louis Post Dispatch summed it up well at the time:
To conservatives, McCaskill's "criticisms" in the Akin commercial sound more like compliments: that he opposes big government and wants to cut the federal departments of energy and education; and that he has been hotly critical of Obama.
At one point, the ad makes an allegation that sounds as if it could be on an Akin bumper sticker: "Todd's pro-family agenda would outlaw many forms of contraception."
While political observers could tell what McCaskill was trying to do, most primary voters just don't pay enough attention to figure this out. To them, it looked like it was just another Democrat attacking another Republican. Many probably even supported Akin as a way to stick it to McCaskill, unaware that they were voting exactly the way she wanted them to vote.
It's always important to use the lines of attack when ratfucking. If McCaskill had hit Akin for something like corruption or nepotism that most voters across the political spectrum dislike, the attack would have almost certainly hurt Akin's primary chances. Yes, some Republican voters would have still have seen McCaskill attacking Akin and voted for him to spite her. But attacks like these would have still planted a seed of doubt in voters' minds and encouraged them to vote for someone else. The trick to ratfucking is to attack your opponent without really attacking him.
It's also important to use the right language when you're trying to prevent a strong candidate from advancing. California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' 2002 gubernatorial campaign is a good case study for this. Davis was very vulnerable (indeed, he'd be recalled a year later) and knew he was in danger of losing a general election to former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. However, Riordan's opponent, businessman Bill Simon, was seen as much easier to beat. Only weeks before the primary, Riordan held a clear lead in the primary polls, but Davis' team set to work on making Riordan unappealing to primary voters. Davis spent about $10 million attacking Riordan for changing his mind on key issues like the death penalty and abortion.
It was clear to political observers what Davis was doing. Some Republican voters may have even caught on. But to the vast majority of primary voters what mattered wasn't the messenger but the message. The idea that Riordan was wishy-washy on conservative values was appealing to them, even if they came from Davis. Democratic interference wasn't the only reason Simon won; Riordan had his own missteps and Simon spent heavily at the end of the race. But Davis' decision to ratfuck the primary payed off big time. Simon transformed a massive polling deficit into a huge 49-31 primary victory. Davis proceeded to defeat Simon 47-42 and win a second (albeit abridged) term.
Don't use positive language: Imagine if Davis had, instead of attacking Riordan, propped up Simon by praising him. In a general election, Simon could have used those quotes to argue how good a person he is. It's better to speak in a language that appeals to conservatives but not to the broader electorate.
Don't be too obvious: Ratfucking works because most primary voters don't pay enough attention to politics to know it's happening. Still, it's always possible to be too obvious about it. It's vital never to admit you're trying to game the primary. The last thing you want is for clips of a Democratic candidate or Democratic operative saying "We want to help Joe Unelectable win the Republican primary," playing on Fox News every hour.
Don't wait till the last minute: Some states cast a huge amount of votes before Election Day. For example, in California ballots start going out a month before the election. If you wait till a week before ratfucking in those states, it may be too late to make a difference.
Crossover voters aren't reliable: It's tempting to try and encourage Democrats to cross over and vote for the least electable Republican. The big problem is getting enough Democrats to vote to make a difference. Because so few people pay attention to primary politics it can be hard to mobilize a significant number of voters to show up for the other party's primary. Some states also require voters to be a member of the party before voting in the primary (so called closed primaries). It's not too hard to change party registration but it introduces another step that reluctant voters may just not take. It's probably easier to convince Republican primary voters to vote the way you want than to get Democratic voters to turn out in significant numbers for a Republican primary.
Where ratfucking can make a difference this year
A number of Republican primaries feature one candidate Democrats would love to face. Here is a look a few of those races.
CA-07: June 3
Three Republicans are competing to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera in this swing district. Former GOP Rep. Doug Ose is a wealthy and relative moderate and he would probably be Bera's most formidable challenger, while former congressional aide Igor Birman's very socially conservative views make him a liability. Perennial candidate Elizabeth Emken is also in, but unlikely to advance. A Birman primary win looks difficult but not impossible, and it could be worthwhile for Team Blue to get involved here.
MS-Sen: June 3, runoff June 24.
Republican Sen. Thad Cochran is safe against any Democrat, but he has a fight on his hands in the GOP primary against tea-partying state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Democratic former Rep. Travis Childers could have an opening against McDaniel, who among other things has shown a skepticism to Katrina relief funds that's unlikely to play well even in this conservative state.
CO-Gov: June 24
Several Republicans are competing to take on Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo's views on immigration make him a potential liability to Republicans in the state and could allow Democrats to galvanize Hispanic voters. The Republican establishment's preferred candidate is former Rep. Bob Beauprez.
Ratfucking does not always work, but when executed correctly, it can make all the difference in whether Team Blue wins or loses. Money and time is needed to pull it off, and it does not make sense to try it in every race. Furthermore, it's vital to use the right language: Republican voters need to think that they're doing the opposite of what the Democrats actually want them to do.
Ratfucking is not the most savory campaign tactic. But if nothing else, Democrats should understand it and be ready to use it.