House Dems berate campaign arm over ‘very dangerous’ GOP primary scheme
The DCCC is airing ads boosting a pro-Trump Republican in a primary against an incumbent who voted for impeachment.
While Meijer is one of the few GOP lawmakers who voted to hold Trump accountable for his own false claims about the 2020 race, his blue-leaning seat is also a top Democratic target district this fall. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
A growing number of House Democrats are seething at their own campaign arm for meddling in a GOP primary to promote a pro-Trump election conspiracy theorist — after months of warning that such candidates were a threat to democracy.
In public statements, private chats and complaints taken directly to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic members are aghast that the committee is spending nearly half a million dollars to air ads boosting Donald Trump-endorsed John Gibbs over Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump last year.
While Meijer is one of the few GOP lawmakers who voted to hold Trump accountable for his own false claims about the 2020 race, his blue-leaning seat is also a top Democratic target district this fall — and Gibbs is seen as an easier opponent to beat in November. The primary next Tuesday will kick off a three-month sprint to the general election. “No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who sits on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s election-subverting schemes that preceded it.
Democrats, like Murphy, fear the strategy could easily backfire, if a candidate like Gibbs were to win the general election amid a GOP wave — and the party also risks undercutting its own core message about the dangers of MAGA Republicans taking power. It could be harder for Democrats to claim that certain GOP candidates are an existential threat to the country if they are also using party money to push them closer to winning office.
Some members’ frustrations are particularly acute now, after months of simmering tensions with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) over other issues during his tenure as chair of the DCCC.
“Many of us are facing death threats over our efforts to tell the truth about Jan. 6. To have people boosting candidates telling the very kinds of lies that caused Jan. 6 and continues to put our democracy in danger, is just mind-blowing,” said Murphy, who is not seeking reelection this fall.
For some, the better chance of flipping one seat is not worth the risk of Gibbs roaming the halls of Congress. The DCCC’s ad calls Gibbs “too conservative for West Michigan,” links him repeatedly to Trump and trumpets his “hard line on immigrants at the border.”
“I do want to win these races, but it makes me worried,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who recalled that others in her party believed Trump would be the easiest candidate for Democrats to defeat in 2016. “I just really worry about promoting election deniers and this idea that we’re going to be able to control what voters want at the end of the day.”
And while senior Democrats were willing to bet that their candidate would win the general election against Gibbs, some lawmakers worried it was a bad gamble for a party that’s already widely seen as the underdog in the midterms.
“It’s very dangerous, I think, in this environment to be propping up candidates like that,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who called it “a terrible idea” and said he has raised his concerns to the DCCC.
“Of course, it could backfire. And that’s part of the reason why I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Not only do I think it sends the wrong message, but it’s substantively risky.”
The broader strategy itself isn’t new: Democratic-aligned groups have spent tens of millions of dollars this year meddling in GOP primaries to promote more extreme candidates and improve their own general-election odds. The most notable example came in Pennsylvania, where Democrats gave a boost to Doug Mastriano — a GOP hardliner and staunch election denier — before he clinched the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Last week, the Democratic Governors Association helped Trump-endorsed Dan Cox to a GOP primary victory in Maryland.
House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC closely aligned with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, aired ads in the spring meant to boost a far-right challenger to Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), another pro-impeachment Republican. Some Democratic members were also uncomfortable with that move.
But the DCCC’s decision to spend $425,000 running the ad significantly escalates the party’s involvement, since it was funded, in part, from lawmakers’ own membership dues. Those members see it as a clear endorsement of the tactic by their own party leaders, even as it remains unclear whether it will work in must-win swing seats this fall, or if it will simply help election-denying Republicans get elected to Congress.
“It’s dishonorable, and it’s dangerous, and it’s just damn wrong,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who said his party was at risk of accelerating the loss of the remaining “truly honorable and courageous Republicans” like Meijer, who was one of just 10 in his party to impeach Trump last year.
Several other Republicans who have resisted Trump — such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who also had harsh words for Democrats Tuesday, and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) — are already leaving Congress. Others, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who faces primary voters on Aug. 16, are likely to be next.
Phillips said he was particularly frustrated that Democrats’ campaign arm made the ad buy amid their own members’ long-running effort to educate the public about the Capitol insurrection and the dangers of election lies: “I think it erodes the high ground that we had been staking and claiming, relative to electoral integrity.”
Meijer already faces steep headwinds in his reelection bid. His seat in Western Michigan is considered one of Democrats’ best pick-up opportunities in the country. Redistricting made the turf much more Democratic-friendly: President Joe Biden would have won it by nearly 9 points.
Democrats feel confident about their own candidate: Hillary Scholten, a former Justice Department attorney who lost to Meijer by single digits two years ago. But they were deeply critical of the effort to give her a more favorable matchup.
“I just think that it’s strange decision-making and I let them know that.” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich) said.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) went further: “It is wrong.”
Armed with polling that shows the president dipping to new lows in battleground districts, Republicans plan to seriously contest districts that Biden won by double digits. And they feel confident they can keep Meijer’s seat — even without the incumbent defending it.
Democrats who support the DCCC’s meddling argue it’s simply one of several tactics that the party is using to protect a razor-thin House margin in a midterm that looks desperate for their party.
“The DCCC is laser focused on holding the House majority, which we will accomplish by fighting for every competitive seat,” DCCC spokesperson Helen Kalla said in a statement. “Kevin McCarthy is an anti-choice insurrectionist coddler and conspiracy enabler, and we will do what it takes to keep the speaker’s gavel out of his hands.”
But privately, several Democrats said the move was particularly frustrating given previous instances where they felt the campaign arm and its chief wasn’t consulting with their members. The outpouring of criticism comes after months of tension between the DCCC and Democratic critics over other issues.
Most recently, rank-and-file lawmakers panned Maloney for making a controversial reelection decision without consulting his state’s delegation, choosing a redrawn district to run in himself that forced a more junior colleague far from his home turf.
Before that, Maloney had drawn criticism from some Texas Democrats for not investing enough in Latino voters and from New York Democrats for what they saw as an overly zealous redistricting strategy. Pennsylvania Democrats raised similar gripes.
Many of the party’s endangered Democrats refuse to speak publicly about their campaign arm’s strategy, particularly as they battle the toughest reelections of their careers. That’s not the case for retiring Democrats, some of whom spoke up on behalf of their colleagues, as well as themselves.
“Dirty games like this are part and parcel of political campaigns. But when you talk about putting money behind candidates who want to come to Washington and destroy our democracy... it’s not a political, dirty trick anymore,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) said. “It’s unconscionable.”
Some of the sharpest criticism, unsurprisingly, came from Meijer himself.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing the sanctimonious bullshit about the Democrats being the pro-democracy party,” the Republican incumbent said.