Fringe GOP candidates who are struggling in primaries are getting temporary aid from unusual allies. Democrats are spending tens of millions of dollars on ads in Republican primaries depicting the more radical contender as too conservative—which may be an effective attack in a general election but appeals to Republican voters in primaries. The upside for Democrats is that it can lead the GOP to nominate candidates who are less attractive to swing voters in November.
They’re using this strategy to meddle in the June 28 GOP primaries for governor of Illinois and for U.S. senator and governor in Colorado.
Aurora, Ill., Mayor Richard Irvin—a conservative veteran and former prosecutor who emphasizes fighting crime, cutting taxes and spending, and cleaning up politics, and who happens to be black—would be a strong contender this November. That’s why Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association are spending an estimated $32 million labeling Mr. Irvin’s principal primary opponent, state Sen. Darren Bailey, as “too conservative for Illinois.”
Mr. Bailey is a freshman legislator from a downstate district of farms and forests along the Indiana border, without major cities or media coverage. The GOP’s best chance to win statewide is a nominee who renews the party’s strength in the northern suburbs while still attracting support from downstate Republican strongholds—and then gets more votes in Chicago than GOP candidates normally do. To deny Mr. Irvin the nomination, Democrats are spending far more depicting Mr. Bailey as a strong conservative than Mr. Bailey is spending on his own campaign.
Voters in Colorado primaries are seeing similar Democrat-funded ads ginning up Republican support for GOP candidates who seem easier to beat in the general.
As of March 31, Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks had raised $57,473 and had $16,165 cash on hand for his U.S. Senate campaign, while the frontrunner, Republican businessman Joe O’Dea, had raised $1,451,498. Concerned that Mr. O’Dea could give Sen. Michael Bennet a real fight, Democrats are spending as much as $3.5 million attacking Mr. Hanks as—you guessed it—“too conservative for Colorado.”
The ads accuse Mr. Hanks of wanting to ban all abortions, build a border wall, and expand gun rights. Mr. O’Dea’s campaign suspects Democrats are also behind mailers painting Mr. O’Dea as a liberal and in favor of gun control—with no mention of his endorsement by the state’s chapter of the National Rifle Association. (The mailers illegally fail to disclose their donor.) Knowing that President Biden won Colorado by more than 13 points, Democrats seem to think their best option is saddling the GOP with a candidate who can’t raise money and holds extreme views.
Democrats are betting the same tactic will deny University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The only statewide elected Republican—she won in 2016 when Mr. Trump lost Colorado—Ms. Ganahl faces former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez in the primary, whom she’s outraised 8 to 1. Yet another Democrat-backed ad blitz—funneled through a political action committee bankrolled by another PAC that’s backed with $1.5 million from the DGA—is attacking Mr. Lopez’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage, calling him—drum roll, please—“too conservative for Colorado.”
These ploys don’t always work. Democrat interference in earlier Republican contests had mixed results. Sheriff Joe Lombardo of Clark County, Nev., won Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary despite the DGA’s spending $2.1 million portraying him as soft on crime. In California’s June 7 primaries Democrats tried to boost extremist challengers to GOP Reps. Young Kim and David Valadao, both of whom still made it to the November ballot.
But Democrats did help controversial Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano win the GOP gubernatorial nomination. The Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, ran ads saying, “If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” Pundits downgraded Republicans’ chances of a pickup after Mr. Mastriano’s victory.
The inventor of this strategy is former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), who effectively deployed it in 2012. During the primaries, she spent $1.7 million attacking her weakest Republican opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, as “too conservative.” He was wiped out in November, even though Missouri is a red state.
Ms. McCaskill boasts that she “successfully manipulated” the GOP primary to get the opponent she “was most likely to beat.” That tactic often works, but at the cost of pushing America’s political parties to their extremes and weakening general-election competition. Still, when the opposition meddles in primaries, it’s up to voters to stop themselves from being played for suckers. Republicans shouldn’t vote in ways that make Democrats jump for joy.