The New York Times
Democrats Didn’t Conjure Up the Demand for MAGA Candidates
By Jamelle Bouie, Opinion Columnist – September 10, 2022
In my column this week, I tackled some of the major objections to President Biden’s Philadelphia speech on MAGA Republicans and the threat they pose to democracy, including the view that it was too divisive.
Even if it was, most Americans land on Biden’s side of the argument — in a Reuters poll conducted just a few days after the speech, 58 percent of respondents, including a quarter of Republicans, said that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement is “threatening America’s democratic foundations.”
What I didn’t address was the charge that Biden, and Democrats in general, are acting in bad faith when they condemn Trump and his allies. If Democrats truly believe that MAGA Republicans are a threat to democracy, goes the argument, why are they spending tens of millions of dollars to elevate them in Republican primaries? My colleagues Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens both made a version of this point in their respective columns this week.
They are keyed into something real: that it is a bit unsavory, if not outright hypocritical, for Democrats to spend huge sums to help nominate MAGA Republicans at the expense of their more moderate, pro-democracy colleagues while condemning those same candidates, and the movement they represent, as a threat to the constitutional order.
Where I part ways with my colleagues is in their conclusion that Democrats are therefore crying alligator tears when they condemn MAGA extremists. If the top priority is depriving the Republican Party of power and influence, then the most important thing for Democrats to do, right now, is win elections. And if the most Trump-aligned candidates tend to be the weakest challengers in a general election, then it is entirely consistent with the argument in Biden’s speech to want to elevate those candidates over more moderate alternatives.
At the end of the day, a more moderate Republican in Congress is still a vote for Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House or Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. It is still a vote, in other words, for a coalition that includes MAGA Republicans.
I could leave it there, except that I think that this answer concedes too much to the premise. Implicit in the question is the factual claim that Democratic spending in Republican primaries is either responsible for — or a significant factor in — the success of MAGA candidates with Republican voters. Otherwise, why would Democrats spend the money and why would conservatives complain about the outcome?
I think it is true that Democratic spending has had an effect. But I think the more significant reason that Republican voters keep nominating MAGA candidates is that Republican voters like MAGA candidates. All you have to do is look at the results of the Republican primaries in question and ask if Democratic money really mattered that much.
Did Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, spend millions to give a boost to Darren Bailey, the Trumpiest candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary? Yes. But Bailey led the Republican field before Pritzker’s intervention, swamping his opponents in an October 2021 poll. Democrats may have nudged some undecided voters into Bailey’s camp, but that alone does not explain how the hard-right Republican won more than 57 percent of the vote in a six-way primary. The more likely answer, given his early lead, is that Republican voters liked what Bailey was selling.
The same goes for Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, the pro-insurrection Republican candidate for governor. Democrats gave him a boost as well. But he led the Republican pack for much of the race and his final tally — nearly 44 percent of the vote in an eight-way contest — reflects his very real popularity with Republican voters in the state.
The other thing to consider is the actual content of Democratic ads on behalf of MAGA Republican candidates. The ad meant to support Mastriano, for example, simply stated his conservative views and emphasized his support for Trump. The ad said that Mastriano wanted to “outlaw abortion” and is “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters.” It also points out that Mastriano “wants to end vote by mail, and he led the fight to audit the 2020 election. If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”
It is not the Democratic Party’s fault that Republicans are attracted to this message, and nothing forced Republicans in Pennsylvania or Illinois (or Michigan or Arizona) to nominate the most MAGA candidates in the field. Republicans voters like Trump and they want Trumpist candidates, and where there’s demand, supply usually follows.
Which is to say that even with Democratic intervention in Republican primaries, the thrust of Biden’s story about the Republican Party still holds up. The party has been captured by extremists, and it’s up to the rest of us to ensure that it doesn’t win more power than it already has.
What I Wrote
My Friday column was on President Biden’s Philadelphia speech, why I think the objections to it are misguided, and what, if anything, was missing from his argument that the MAGA movement is a threat to American democracy.
To divide against a radical minority that would attack and undermine democratic self-government is to divide along the most inclusive lines possible. It is to do a version of what Franklin Roosevelt did when he condemned“organized money,” “economic royalists” and the “forces of selfishness and lust for power.”