Democrats' Risky Election Strategy Seems to Be Working | Opinion

A Fox News poll on Thursday gave Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro a 10-point lead over his Republican opponent, 2020 Truther and ardent forced-birther Doug Mastriano in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. Those numbers are great news for state Democrats who courted controversy helping Mastriano best his less insane opponents in the primary. In a red-leaning state like Pennsylvania, amid a difficult political environment for Democrats, the GOP candidate should be favored rather than trailing by double digits. And while there are still huge risks, both short and long term, to elevating their worst opponents, in this cycle it just might pay off for Democrats.

Mastriano is an extraordinarily dangerous person, a Christianist fanatic who was so consumed by former President Donald Trump's 2020 election conspiracy theory that he was spotted outside the capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. As a state senator, he was allegedly involved with the illicit scheme to award Pennsylvania's electoral votes to Trump in a state that Joe Biden won by more than 80,000 votes. If he becomes governor, Mastriano would instantaneously become a key cog in the GOP's 2024 plot against democracy and would eagerly sign the harshest abortion ban that the Republican-held legislature can pass.

Doug Mastriano Party
People attend Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano's election-night party at The Orchards on May 17, 2022, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

But he is also, perhaps, the one candidate who could convince disgruntled Democrats in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to turn out in numbers sufficient to keep the governor's office away from the GOP, especially with popular two-term Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf term limited. Lending Mastriano a helping hand is therefore both a high-risk and high-reward strategy. And if Democrats emerge from these midterms in better shape than looked possible just a month ago, it might just prove to be worth the gamble.

It's not just Pennsylvania. In Illinois and Maryland, Democrats successfully intervened to elevate Trump-aligned candidates for governor in the GOP primaries. And in Colorado and California, a similar playbook failed to bring election denying MAGA acolytes over the line. And Democrats are working to elevate dangerous candidates in states yet to hold their primaries, including Michigan. Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars on these races, cutting ads that looked like attacks by highlighting the candidate's hardline conservative positions, but that were aimed at Republican primary voters who overwhelmingly support Trump. Saying someone is "too conservative for Illinois," for example, makes them even more appealing to the state's freshly radicalized Republican primary electorate.

Of course, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election should give proponents of this strategy pause. Of all the potential GOP nominees, Donald Trump polled the worst against Hillary Clinton, had enough personal baggage to fill the overhead compartments on a 747 and loudly exuded unmistakably crazytown vibes. And yet he won, and elite Democrats who reacted to Trump's rise with "giddy disbelief" were left with their worst-case scenario: not only did they lose the election, but they lost it to the world's worst option.

There are, therefore, two major potential downsides to these efforts. First, Democrats are paying good money to, in effect, deliver a series of state Republican Parties into the hands of election-denying religious zealots. By intervening against what remains of the relatively sane factions in the GOP, Democrats are helping to ensure that they are progressively eliminated from positions of power and authority inside state Republican parties.

It's also a particularly risky gambit given how often even deep blue state voters seem willing to turn governor's offices over to Republicans. In Illinois, it was only eight years ago that angry midterm voters elected Republican Bruce Rauner governor. Multiple Democratic landslide states, including Maryland, Vermont, and Massachusetts, are just now preparing to bid adieu to two-term Republican governors. That means the Republican brand is still strong enough in those states to win statewide elections.

Not everyone is a fan of the Democratic strategy. Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger argued that Democrats "don't understand the threat to democracy." Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida angrily denounced the efforts, saying "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." According to Rep. Kathleen Rice, (D-N.Y.) "We should be backing our own frontliners, not gambling on seditionists."

Still, Democrats aren't giving up on the plan, yet. Incumbent Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose team spent $35 million boosting MAGA favorite Darren Bailey has a healthy lead over the controversial GOP state legislator. And even where Democrats didn't weigh in directly, Republican fortunes are sagging due to the victories of Trump-endorsed candidates like former NFL star Herschel Walker in Georgia's U.S. Senate race, and snake-oil salesman Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania's.

There's a long way to go until November, and the last few cycles should make us skeptical of implausibly large Democratic polling leads in closely divided states. But a bad batch of candidates, combined with the nationwide backlash against the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, has dramatically increased the Democrats' chances of holding or enlarging their Senate majority, controlling important swing state governor's offices, and possibly even maintaining the governing trifecta that looked like a goner in June. The Democratic strategists behind these hardball maneuvers might, in the end, deserve our thanks rather than our scorn.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.