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Why Democrats are paying for ads supporting Republican primary candidates


In Republican primary contests this election year, some candidates are getting a boost from an unexpected place - Democrats.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...And Republican Chris Mathys, a true conservative, 100% pro-Trump and proud.

SHAPIRO: That ad, which ran in California, was paid for by...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: House Majority PAC is responsible for the content of this ad.

SHAPIRO: The House Majority PAC is affiliated with Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi. The strategy playing out in many states goes like this - Democrats give a boost to Republican primary candidates with extreme views, hoping they will be less competitive in a general election than a more moderate GOP candidate. It's a risky move with potential to backfire. Former Senator Claire McCaskill is a Democrat who has talked about how she used this tactic to win her race in Missouri in 2012. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: Let's go back a decade. You've said that in the last two weeks of that 2012 Republican primary, you spent more money to boost Tea Party candidate Todd Akin than he spent on his entire primary campaign. What were you thinking as you spent millions of dollars to boost a conservative Republican candidate running for Senate in Missouri?

MCCASKILL: Well, every race is different. In my situation, there were three viable candidates, and Todd Akin was kind of the weirdest one. I knew he might say some weird things if he were nominated. And so he had less money. So we took a poll, figured out what Republican voters would really like about him, and we spent millions of dollars promoting him by telling Missourians all the things that the Republican primary voters liked about him, but the general election, independent voters didn't like about him.

SHAPIRO: That strategy worked. And you say it was based on an assessment that he was, in your words, the weirdest candidate, and that he might say some weird things. Four years later, a candidate who said a lot of weird things was elected president. And I think many Democrats thought Donald Trump might have been the weakest candidate in a crowded primary field. So there are clear risks here. Do people who try a strategy like this - are they playing with fire?

MCCASKILL: Well, there certainly are risks, and it's certainly different today than it was a decade ago. And let me point out the major difference. When Todd Akin said what I expected him to say, something that was off the wall in the general election, unlike today, the Republican leadership all came together and rejected him. We have watched the leadership in the Republican Party hide under their desk at the amazing, horrible things that Donald Trump would do. So it's different today. I'm not sure you could count on Republican leaders to stand up and reject a candidate that said things that were abhorrent to most voters.

SHAPIRO: Are there candidates whose positions are so extreme - whether it's endorsing QAnon or opposing American democracy, propagating the false narrative that the election was stolen from Donald Trump - that you think just the risk of getting them one step closer to federal office is simply too dangerous?

MCCASKILL: I think it depends on the district. If there is confidence that the voters in that district are going to reject that extremism, then I think elevating them may be a smart strategy. But it is a big mistake to do it in a district where a Trump candidate has as good or better chance of getting elected than a more moderate one.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I'm just thinking confidence is never proof, right? A person can be sure that Hillary Clinton is going to win the presidency and still be surprised the morning after the election.

MCCASKILL: Point well taken. We were all surprised by Donald Trump. But these are tough races, and I do not regret for a minute what we did a decade ago. And at the end of the day, if you look at some of the crazies that like to get attention, their voting record is not that different than the leadership of the Republican Party. So it isn't as if they're going to be able to do things a lot differently than what they're currently doing in Washington in the Republican Party.

SHAPIRO: So far this year, this tactic has had mixed results. It worked in a Pennsylvania governor's race; it didn't in a California congressional contest. Next week, there are primaries in Colorado and Illinois, where the same dynamic is playing out. So what advice besides, tailor it to your district, to your state - what advice do you have for Democrats who are trying this maneuver?

MCCASKILL: Well, first of all, I certainly would recommend that you spend some time figuring out what the Republicans voting in the primary actually support. And it would be nice if you also had a handle on what the independent voters in your area, your district or your state don't like. And if those two match up, that's what you should be talking about, because the beauty of the ad we ran against Todd Akin a decade ago was - the very things that made him attractive to many people in the Republican primary, made him unelectable with independent voters in the general.

SHAPIRO: Is this tactic always ethical? I mean, whether or not it works, is it an honest way to inform voters who are making important decisions about who gets to create laws?

MCCASKILL: Well, listen. I'm somebody who thinks dark money is evil. But I do think that it is ethical as long as the voters know - I mean, in my instance, I said, I'm Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message. And there was nothing in that ad that I didn't believe. I did believe Todd Akin was too conservative for Missouri. As it turned out, then Missouri agreed with me.

SHAPIRO: That's former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Thank you for speaking with us.

MCCASKILL: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's flagship afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. He has been a question on Jeopardy and an answer in the New York Times crossword puzzle. He has filed stories from above the Arctic Circle and aboard Air Force One, and he has covered wars in Iraq, Ukraine and Israel. His debut memoir, The Best Strangers In the World, was an instant New York Times bestseller. He has also performed as a singer in some of the world's most storied venues, from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl.
Noah Caldwell
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own. [Copyright 2024 NPR]