Democratic group led by Cooper spends big to bolster far-right Republicans

The Democratic Governors Association is facing scrutiny from members of its own party for promoting far-right Republican candidates in states where gubernatorial races are expected to be particularly close.

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Paul Specht
Bryan Anderson, WRAL state government reporters
The Democratic Governors Association, a national organization that helps elect Democrats to state offices, is facing scrutiny from members of its own party for promoting far-right Republican candidates in states where gubernatorial races could be close.

The association, which is chaired by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, is pumping millions of dollars into ads about these candidates in GOP primaries—including some that high-profile Republicans have heavily criticized for promoting falsehoods about the electoral process.

The DGA’s money is aimed at primary elections, but the group’s long game is focused on the general election. The thinking: Democratic candidates in swing states will become more electable if their Republican opponent is especially controversial.

While the ads imply that the candidates aren’t desirable, they highlight traits that conservative primary voters might find appealing.
But some Democrats are worried that the tack is a dicy one in a year when President Biden’s approval rating is low and issues such as abortion and gun rights are expected to motivate voters on both sides of the political spectrum. Disapproval has come from top pundits such as David Axelrod, who was the chief strategist for former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, as well as elected officials down the ranks.

Tennessee state Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat and former state party caucus chair, called the strategy inappropriate and shortsighted, adding that the DGA should apologize for amplifying election deniers and putting them in a position where they could potentially gain power.

“Governor Cooper should be ashamed of himself,” Stewart told WRAL News. “He should announce that he made a huge mistake.”

“It's very important that prominent leaders emphasize the importance of democracy over any particular party for any particular strategic objective,” Stewart added.

In Illinois, the DGA and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent nearly $35 million combined, the New York Times reported, attacking a moderate gubernatorial candidate while trying to lift a more conservative contestant: Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, who is backed by former President Donald Trump, has resisted COVID-19 mitigation restrictions and opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest—something many Democrats support.
Before Michigan’s primaries on Tuesday, a group associated with the DGA aired an ad claiming that GOP frontrunner Tudor Dixon’s budget proposal would slash police funding—an attack that could’ve pushed Republican voters to a more conservative candidate.
And in Maryland, the DGA booked almost $1.2 million in ad spending through the Republican primary to bolster state Rep. Dan Cox, who has called Mike Pence a traitor for certifying the 2020 presidential election results and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, according to NBC News and OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit that reports on election spending. Trump endorsed Cox. But outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who endorsed Cox’s opponent, has described Cox as a “whack job” and “conspiracy theorist” and criticized the DGA for propping him up.

The DGA’s strategy is informed by research, approved by its leaders and executed by staff, said David Turner, the group’s communications director. “Our leadership is involved in ensuring our overall strategy across 36 races is sound,” Turner said.

When asked about the approach this week, Cooper declined to discuss his role as DGA chairman in how the group spends its money or the thought process behind elevating controversial Republicans. He instead talked about how the money largely goes to elevating Democrats and getting out the party message heading into November.

“The DGA is investing its funds in getting Democratic governors elected across the country, mostly concerned on its incumbents to make sure that they are elected. They want to make sure that they educate the public about issues that they're going to face in about 100 days when November comes around,” Cooper told reporters Tuesday after a Council of State meeting.

Asked about funding conspiracy theorists, Cooper said the DGA is investing in “educating the public about issues that are concerning to them and that will be concerning to them in November elections." The DGA-funded ads are a way to highlight “the extremism of these candidates,” Cooper told the New York Times for its Aug. 1 story about the races.

The DGA’s tactics confuse some on the other side of the aisle, too. Doug Heye, a North Carolinian and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Democrats are “playing with matches” at a time when Biden's approval rating is low. He thinks the DGA’s plan to promote more extremist views contradicts the party’s other efforts at stifling dangerous speech.

“If you truly believe that these are insane conspiracy theorists election deniers, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-minority and everything else … you've now elevated all of that to a place where it has more credence,” Heye said.

Critics fear the strategy, which has been deployed by other Democratic groups, could backfire and lead to a repeat of Trump–who was once deemed too controversial to be elected president—until he was.

Nathan Kalmoe, a political science professor at Louisiana State University, called the efforts “dangerously stupid,” saying that it could actually cause moderates to run on a more conservative platform and ride a wave of Democratic-fueled ads.

“Even aside from the voting implications, it is a big disincentive for non-MAGA Republicans to stay non-MAGA,” Kalmoe tweeted on July 26, referring to Republicans who echo Trump’s “make America great again” battle cry and repeat conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from him. “And the non-MAGA faction needs to win within the [Republican] party to avoid the most disastrous outcomes we're facing as a country.”

Lis Smith, a former adviser to Pete Buttigieg—the U.S. transportation secretary who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020—said it was risky but that the Democratic group wouldn’t be culpable for the candidates’ success.

“Look, are they playing with fire? Sure,” Smith told CNN. “But it is a Republican base that is voting for people who deny the results of the last election, want to criminalize abortion, and will only make sure that the people they support for president win the next election.”

Turner, the DGA spokesman, rejected the idea that the group was solely responsible for the success of controversial candidates.

“We have been clear,” he said. “We are [starting] the general election early in a number of states because we believed the front runner was going to be the eventual nominee.

“Any notion we were boosting Republicans is wrong,” he said. “Educating the public on the MAGA extremism, and cowardice, of today's Republican party is essential to ensuring all citizens have the facts. It's time for the GOP to look in the mirror and have a reckoning with itself, instead of trying to find someone else to blame.”

The strategy isn’t unprecedented. Former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri spent $1.7 million to boost the late U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a founding member of the Tea Party Caucus, in the 2014 GOP primary. She went on to beat him and later write about her strategy for Politico. Then, in 2020, a political action committee aligned with Republican leaders sent $3 million to a group supporting progressive candidate Erica Smith in the Democratic primary for a North Carolina seat in the U.S. Senate.
Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who works with Cooper in North Carolina, said he hasn’t advised Cooper on DGA matters. But Jackson thinks it’s smart of the group to elevate far-right candidates. It’s likely that establishment-backed Republicans and fringe candidates hold many of the same controversial positions. The latter is just more willing to state their opinions publicly, he said.

Ultimately, he said, it’s the GOP primary voters who are electing flawed candidates to run in races where they’ll need support from outside the party.

“Republicans continue to drive off the cliff and nominate more and more candidates who are on the fringe of their own party, which are about 175 degrees away from your average voter,” Jackson said.


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