When I was a but a lad, my father offered me some sage advice. “Son,” he said, “you always want the Republicans to nominate their best candidate, because whomever they nominate has a shot at winning.” Put differently, the fate of the country is more important than immediate partisan tactical advantage.*
This is a lesson that 2016 should have taught everyone, bigly. But Politico reports that not all Democrats have internalized it.
With Republican Senate primaries from West Virginia to Montana promising to pit Trump-inspired insurgents against more mainstream candidates, Democrats are considering ways to step in and wreak some havoc. The idea: Elevate the GOP’s most extreme option in each race, easing Democrats’ path to victory in a range of states tilted against them.
At its most aggressive, the tactic could be a sequel to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2012 campaign against then-GOP Rep. Akin in Missouri. She actively intevened in the Republican primary with ads designed to boost the conservative Akin to the front of the pack. Once he became the nominee, a series of gaffes — led by his “legitimate rape” comment — and hard-line positions unraveled his campaign.
Possibilities abound to revive the strategy next year, Democrats say. They’re exploring states including Arizona, where Kelli Ward, a challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake, said Sen. John McCain should vacate his seat “as quickly as possible” after his brain cancer diagnosis. They’re looking at Nevada, where frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian — who once mused about “pretend[ing] we’re black,” referring to his African-American opponent — is running against Sen. Dean Heller.
Now, given the outlet, and the nature of the story, it is hard to tell whether there’s any chance that Democrats will actually implement such a strategy. Still, at least some appear to recognize the dangers here.
“You always have to watch closely what’s going on on the other side. But you cannot force a fumble in these situations,” warned party strategist Matt Canter, a senior staffer at the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm in 2012, when McCaskill defeated Akin. “Unfortunately, the goal posts have moved on what’s considered sane and reasonable now.”
Of course, one could invoke another lesson of 2016: almost all Republicans—whether out of fear of being primaried, profound love of tax cuts, or broader ideology—will behave pretty much the same in the House and the Senate.
After all, Ben Sasse, Dean Heller, and Jeff Flake would like everyone to know that they are deeply concerned. They truly are.
But there remains value in minimizing the number of batshit insane, conspiracy-huffing, outright racists in the legislative branch. Shifts in the composition of the GOP bench could lock Trumpism in for decades, even if Trump goes down in flames. And, in such a scenario, Democrats will need Republican help—or, at least, acquiescence— to unwind some of the damage.
Image: By US Government (Office of Congressman Paul Gosar) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. For more on Gosar’s nuttery, see this Vice article.
*It didn’t actually go down quite like that, but the broad outlines of this anecdote are true.