Pennsylvania Democrat Josh Shapiro made headlines earlier this month when he began airing ads to not-so-subtly boost one of his Republican rivals: state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a QAnon ally whom many Republicans fret would be a toxic nominee should he win Tuesday’s primary for governor. Shapiro, though, is by no means the only Democrat who's trying to pick his opponent by meddling across the aisle, a tactic that has a long history in American politics.
In Illinois, for instance, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has already spent $4 million on commercials to weaken Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin ahead of that state’s June 28 nomination contest. The group has gone a step further now by airing ads ostensibly attacking state Sen. Darren Bailey that are in fact designed to boost him with GOP voters.
In California, meanwhile, Attorney General Rob Bonta is also trying to help his most Trumpian rival, attorney Eric Early, in the June 7 top-two primary. Early is going up against a field that includes a fellow Republican in former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman, as well as Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican who became an independent in 2018.
Bonta's critics, including the state’s powerful law enforcement unions, think that an unaffiliated candidate like Schubert gives them their best chance to defeat the incumbent in a dark blue state where Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2006. Even Hochman, though he'd have to overcome his party label, could still put up a fight in a strong GOP year as a more moderate option. (Exceedingly rarely for a Republican, he says he supports Roe v. Wade.) Early, by contrast, is making absolutely no attempt to reach beyond the MAGA base, arguing instead, “This is our destiny as Republicans, to fight the evil woke.”
Bonta, though, isn’t just passively hoping that conservatives pick Early. The attorney general and his allies are running ads that purport to go after Early, but in a way designed to make conservatives actually want to vote for him. One ad features a man describing Bonta as “[v]ery different than Eric Early, who proudly calls himself the candidate from the Trump wing of the Republican Party—he’s pro-Trump, pro-life, and pro-guns.”
The DGA is trying something similar in the GOP contest to take on Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, which uses a traditional primary. Its new spot calls Bailey “too conservative for Illinois” and dubs him a proud Trump supporter who's “calling into question our elections and fighting for gun owners and the unborn.” The ad even shows footage of Bailey using a firearm as the on-screen text declares he “OPPOSES LIBERAL GUN CONTROL.”
By contrast, in a different ad meant to directly weaken Irvin, the DGA blasted the Aurora mayor’s past career as a defense attorney whose clients included "violent criminals," which echoes the kind of broadside that Republicans more commonly use against Democrats.
Both the DGA and Bonta, as well as Shapiro in Pennsylvania, are trying to pull off a gambit that Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill employed to devastating effect in her 2012 re-election campaign to the Senate. McCaskill, as she would write in her 2015 memoir, believed that the hardline Rep. Todd Akin would be a considerably weaker general election foe than his two main intraparty rivals, businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
The senator therefore spent $1.7 million during the final four weeks of the GOP primary, which she noted was more than Akin spent in total to secure his party's nod. That money went to ads calling Akin "pro-family" and "too conservative"—messages calculated to make Republicans like him more. McCaskill says she even used backchannels to pass advice to Akin, including polling data, telling him which of his own ads he ought to run.
McCaskill was far from the first politician who sought to manipulate the opposing party's primary this way, but her intervention succeeded so well that she’s become a model for others trying the same approach. Akin won his nomination and then promptly self-destructed with his notorious “legitimate rape” comments. McCaskill ended up beating the congressman, who died last year, by a wide 55-39 margin even as Mitt Romney was carrying Missouri 54-44.
However, while both parties have often tried to emulate McCaskill’s offensive in the decade since then, such efforts usually fail. Often, would-be victims of such machinations have the time and money to warn their party’s voters what’s happening, which is what Irvin is trying in a new commercial that labels Bailey as Pritzker’s “favorite Republican.” His ad even shows footage in which Bailey is asked, “You glad to see those ads from the Democratic Governors Association?”, to which the state senator smiles and responds, “Oh yeah. Yeah. I dig ‘em. And that’s beautiful.”
Still, don’t expect either side to stop these sorts of shenanigans anytime soon. McCaskill proved that this strategy, as expensive as it is, is worth every penny whenever it succeeds. Shapiro will find out Tuesday if he’s in luck in Pennsylvania, while we’ll learn in the coming weeks if Democrats nab the opponents they want in California and Illinois.