A week before the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, Doug Mastriano prayed with Christian Nationalists for Donald Trump to seize power. Why then did he receive funding from Democrats in this year’s primary race for Pennsylvania governor? A bold new campaign strategy that has sparked national controversy- spending millions to help far-right candidates reach the general election.
According to campaign finance tracker, Open Secrets, Democrat-funded political action committees have invested at least $44 million on advertisements for far-right candidates. The commercials often emphasize that a candidate is too conservative for a state or district and highlight their endorsement by Donald Trump. Although appearing critical, these talking points are intended to energize conservative primary voters.
The rationale is simple. Since most moderate and swing voters do not feel comfortable voting for such extreme candidates, they are less of an electoral threat in November. The approach has worked in several cases, securing primary victories for far-right candidates, including Mastriano.
This tactic has divided the Democratic party. While supporters claim it is necessary to increase the odds of electoral victory, critics argue the strategy undermines the country’s democratic institutions. Looking closely at the consequences, this move clearly weakens the foundations of American democracy. Elevating far-right candidates facilitates democratic erosion in two critical ways: propagating the views of election deniers and promoting political figures with stronger commitments to partisan politics than democratic norms.
At the most basic level, this strategy provides a greater platform for candidates to continue to undercut public faith in the country’s electoral system. Despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud, far-right election deniers continue to espouse false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. By guaranteeing that these candidates stick around past the primaries, Democrats are amplifying their voices, contributing to misplaced public skepticism about the integrity of elections. In a scathing public statement condemning their colleagues, 35 former elected Democratic officials argued it is “risky and unethical to promote any candidate whose campaign is based on eroding trust in our elections.” The primary victory of such candidates also legitimizes the idea that the election was stolen, conflating baseless conspiracies with the mainstream Republican party platform.
Worse yet, since Democrats face an uphill battle in this year’s elections, there is a real chance some far-right candidates will be elected. Especially in the case of governor, these individuals would oversee and certify elections. As noted by University of Chicago Law professors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, for elections to be considered free and fair, there must be a genuine possibility of the alteration of power. By claiming widespread voter fraud, such governors could feasibly delay or outright deny the transition of power to the opposition.
At the root of far-right candidates’ false election claims is an underlying lack of commitment to democratic norms. In the same article by Huq and Ginsburg, they argue that the Constitution provides few legitimate safeguards against democratic erosion. The document is often ambiguous, relying heavily on common law and norms rather than formal institutions to protect against tyranny. Therefore, the country’s democratic foundations depend largely on the quality of political leadership.
With this perspective, it was not the Constitution itself, but Vice President Pence’s commitment to democracy that allowed for the transition of power in 2020. Once partisanship overwhelms commitment to democracy, however, a party may become anti-system and facilitate democratic erosion from within.
Even beyond their public denial of the election results, these candidates’ other positions often show little allegiance to democratic ideals. Another candidate who won their primary with the help of Democratic spending is Michigan congressional candidate John Gibbs. Prior to running for office, he publicly declared that America would be better off if women could not vote. While some comments like this are blatantly anti-democratic, at a minimum, their far-right platforms show a greater commitment to partisanship than democracy. If successful in the general election, this could signal that the mainstream Republican party has effectively become anti-system, increasing the likelihood of significant democratic deterioration.
The presence of far-right candidates on the primary ballot is not a direct fault of Democratic spending. It has been part of a broader trend arguably dating back to the nomination of Donald Trump in 2016.; however, this electoral approach only exacerbates the situation. Like in the case of election denial, Democrats are helping legitimize their anti-democratic policies as a viable political platform. If the strategy backfires come November, then Democrats played an active role in degenerating the quality of political leadership and electing individuals with weak democratic commitments.
While the reasoning behind Democratic campaign spending appears logical at face value, it is a dangerous and reckless scheme that ultimately weakens American democracy. Of course, Democrats are not the root of the problem. Nevertheless, by spending millions of dollars interfering in the primaries, they are helping far-right candidates move from the fringes of the Republican party into the mainstream. Ultimately, elevating these candidates erodes public faith in the electoral system and potentially diminishes the quality of political leadership in the country. Instead, Democrats should redirect focus towards their own candidates’ campaigns, working to strengthen the appeal to swing voters.