Election 2024

Democrats Are Once Again Boosting MAGA Republicans

Even if successful, the strategy demonstrates how little interest politicians have in standing for something, rather than against something else.


When Ohioans go to the polls today, one item on their ballot will be to pick a candidate for Senate. Republicans will have three candidates to choose from: state Sen. Matt Dolan, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, and businessman Bernie Moreno.

On Monday, an Emerson College poll gave the advantage to Moreno with a nine-point lead. One unlikely benefactor: Democrats.

Last week, Michael Bender at The New York Times reported that a Democrat-aligned political action committee had spent $2.7 million to air an ad in the state. The 30-second spot tars "MAGA Republican Bernie Moreno" as "too conservative for Ohio." It touts his endorsement by former President Donald Trump and charges that Moreno "would do Donald Trump's bidding" if elected.

While this sounds like a straightforward attack ad, the intent is twofold, "describing him in terms that are likely to make him more appealing to conservative Ohio primary voters," as The New York Times' Lisa Lerer wrote on Monday. "Party strategists believe Moreno will be an easier opponent for the incumbent Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, in the general election."

This strategy was used to great effect in the 2022 midterms, in which Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars running ads accusing Republican primary candidates of being too conservative and in lockstep with Trump; those candidates won their respective primaries before going on to lose to a Democrat in the general election.

The tactic was a bit awkward, given that Democrats spent millions of dollars to boost the most extreme right-wing candidates, while at the same time President Joe Biden spoke in apocalyptic terms about those very same "MAGA Republicans" who were "committed…to destroying American democracy."

In fact, the method is basically identical: The Moreno ad closes on an image of Moreno and Trump with the caption, "Bernie Moreno: Too Conservative for Ohio." A 2022 ad funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charged that John Gibbs, a Republican candidate in Michigan's 3rd district running against incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, was "too conservative" and "handpicked by Trump." The ad closed on a picture of Gibbs and Trump with the caption "John Gibbs and Donald Trump: Too Conservative for West Michigan." Gibbs would defeat Meijer in the primary before losing by 12 points in the general election, in a district that had been considered safely Republican.

Two images from campaign ads: One of former President Donald Trump with John Gibbs and the caption "John Gibbs and Donald Trump: Too Conservative for West Michigan," the other an image of Trump with Bernie Moreno, reading "Bernie Moreno: Too Conservative for Ohio"
(Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Duty and Country PAC)

Democrats are not the only ones to play this game: Last year, when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. challenged President Joe Biden by entering the Democratic primary, conservatives as variegated as Tucker Carlson and former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully praised Kennedy as a "truth teller" who possessed "a chronic inability to tolerate the intellectual dishonesty he finds in his antagonists." It would make sense if some of those plaudits were not meant to boost Kennedy as a presidential candidate so much as to create a headache for Biden.

But in the past two election cycles, it is overwhelmingly Democrats who have boosted their most extreme opponents in the hope that it will translate to electoral success.

Ultimately, the tactic worked across numerous elections in 2022, as far-right candidates trounced moderates in blue-state Republican primaries before going on to lose to Democrats by double digits in November. Kevin Robillard wrote at HuffPost that Democrats "played with fire and avoided any burns."

But that tactic is considerably riskier this time in a swing state like Ohio. Cook Political Report ranked the state six points more Republican than the nation as a whole in 2022; that same year, Republican J.D. Vance defeated Democrat Tim Ryan by that same margin to become the state's other U.S. Senator.

In that political climate, it's much easier to imagine Moreno squeaking by in November, especially if Trump surges to reelection—which is certainly possible, as he is currently running dead-even with President Joe Biden.

More to the point, though, the continued use of this strategy indicates how much the political parties have fallen prey to negative partisanship. Rather than campaigning on what they plan to do if elected—or, perhaps more attractive for libertarians, what they plan not to do—candidates are campaigning against the worst possible version of their opponents and using campaign cash to try to select for that outcome.