Skip to content

So what if Democrats meddled in GOP primaries?

DCCC spending aimed at Meijer opponent did not cross ethical boundary

Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer was ousted in an August Republican primary after Democrats spent heavily informing GOP voters about his opponent's support for former President Donald Trump.
Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer was ousted in an August Republican primary after Democrats spent heavily informing GOP voters about his opponent's support for former President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — My head almost exploded recently when I heard yet again that Democrats had violated some sort of code of ethics by spending money to promote weaker Republican candidates in primaries this cycle.

I thought we had moved on to other subjects until I saw a late September CNN piece dredging up that argument. That piece was no better than previous newspaper and TV reports, all of which ignored an important element. So, I thought I’d deal with it now and hopefully put the topic to rest.

The case cited most often probably is Michigan’s 3rd District, where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent heavily to inform voters that John Gibbs, a former official in President Donald Trump’s administration, was running for the GOP nomination and “backed the former President’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election,” according to the Sept. 27 piece on CNN’s website.

Gibbs challenged Rep. Peter Meijer, a pragmatic Republican incumbent who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. Gibbs ended up winning narrowly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Some cable TV talking heads continue to complain that Democrats should encourage moderate Republicans as an alternative to the MAGA crowd, not undermine Republicans like Meijer.

On one level, there is a pinch of truth to that point.  Meijer showed considerable independence by voting for impeachment, and he certainly is a more reasonable person than Gibbs, who was endorsed by Trump and once argued against women having the right to vote.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Meijer’s first and single most important vote was on who should be House speaker. And while the Michigan Republican voted to impeach Trump at the start of the current Congress, Meijer also voted to make Kevin McCarthy speaker. 

A larger number of Democrats voting for Nancy Pelosi prevented that from happening, but a similar vote in a Republican majority would make McCarthy speaker and put Republican House members in crucial leadership posts and committee chairmanships. That would empower them to undermine Joe Biden’s presidency, either by blocking efforts by the White House and/or the Senate to address the nation’s problems or by impeaching Biden and members of his Cabinet.

While Meijer was among a handful of House Republicans to vote to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack  (a measure that was blocked by the Senate), he voted against creating the select committee that the House ultimately established.

“I believe it is essential we have a thorough, credible Jan. 6 investigation in order to produce an objective report to get at the truth and clear away fictions and lies,” Meijer said.  But, he continued, “I fear the structure of this partisan select committee will not produce that critical outcome.” 

Much of the criticism of the DCCC’s tactics (which have also been used by other Democratic campaign committees and super PACs) is that the Democrats are “playing with fire,” as one late July — pre-primary — MSNBC column put it.

The columnist worried about “handing Trump another endorsement win” and “signaling to Republican observers in Michigan that the political winds favor right-wing extremism over Meijer-style moderation.” He also worried that a Gibbs win might make Republicans nationwide more likely “to view maverick pro-democracy votes, like Meijer’s impeachment vote, as career killers.”

Finally, the columnist concluded by citing “the simple fact that the Democrats’ money could otherwise be spent directly helping vulnerable Democrats ahead of a potential November bloodbath.”

In fact, pro-democracy votes are career killers on the GOP side, and the Republican Party does favor right-wing extremism over Meijer-style moderation. As for another “Trump endorsement win,” that would be meaningless.

Could Gibbs win in November? It’s not impossible. But Meijer’s Michigan district is more politically competitive after redistricting and not in tune with Gibbs’ Trumpism, and Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten, who lost to Meijer by only 6 points two years ago, is regarded as a quality candidate. Moreover, the DCCC must have data about how and where its money can be best employed.

Defining an opponent and raising his or her negatives is often easier and more effective than trying to improve an incumbent’s job approval rating when he is a member of an unpopular president’s party.

It’s one thing to complain about an ad that is inaccurate. That’s not what is being alleged in this case. The people complaining don’t like the fact that Democrats are playing in a GOP primary by accurately identifying one of the GOP hopefuls as a Trump loyalist.

My advice to Democrats who feel uncomfortable with their party spending money to demonize a potential opponent? Get over it. Politics ain’t beanbag.

Recent Stories

Alabama IVF ruling spurs a GOP reckoning on conception bills

House to return next week as GOP expects spending bills to pass

FEC reports shine light on Super Tuesday primaries

Editor’s Note: Never mind the Ides of March, beware all of March

Supreme Court to hear arguments on online content moderation

In seeking justice by jury trials, Camp Lejeune veterans turn to Congress