Vulnerable Democrats are increasingly spending money and resources on boosting Republican candidates whom they hope will prove easier to beat in the November midterms.
Democratic candidates and groups are muscling into heated GOP primaries, showering controversial or hardline Republicans with free air time and other benefits. The strategy has surfaced largely in races that are rated highly competitive by political prognosticators.
“Candidates vying for office are always seeking out every advantage possible,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic political strategist who has been involved in several high-profile campaigns. “That includes working to shape the general election by helping pick opponents with a difficult path to victory.”
The political machinations are nowhere more evident than in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the unopposed Democratic candidate for governor, is working to boost one of his GOP rivals, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, in a nine-person primary.
Mr. Shapiro’s campaign is running an ad statewide ahead of the May 17 primary burnishing Mr. Mastriano as the candidate closest to former President Donald Trump. While the overall ad is slightly negative, it invokes red-meat issues to argue “that if Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”
“Both public and private polling indicates that Doug Mastriano is poised to become the Republican nominee on May 17 — and our campaign is prepared to start the general election now and make sure Pennsylvanians know his real record,” said Will Simons, a spokesman for Mr. Shapiro’s campaign.
At the same time the ad is running, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party is targeting Republican voters with campaign mailers tying Mr. Mastriano to Mr. Trump. One of the mailers calls the duo “two of a kind,” while another states that “four years of Doug Mastriano would be four more years of Donald Trump.”
Mr. Mastriano’s campaign did not return requests for comment on this story. The candidate has brushed off the help from Democrats in recent days, however.
“I’m going to have to send [Mr. Shapiro] a ‘thank you’ card,” Mr. Mastriano told a local Lancaster, Pennsylvania newspaper.
Mr. Mastriano argues that the helping hand from Democrats will have little impact, and that his campaign is already positioned to sweep the primary. Recent polls seem to back up the case.
A Fox News poll released this week showed Mr. Mastriano leading the GOP field for governor with 29% support, while his nearest rival, former Rep. Lou Barletta was at 17%.
Despite the results, political observers and even some longtime Republicans say that Mr. Mastriano would be a disastrous nominee. They say that as state legislator, Mr. Mastriano has cultivated a far-right image that will make him unacceptable to suburban voters and independents.
Mr. Mastriano not only led the charge against the COVID-19 lockdowns, but also pushed to decertify the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania over claims of voter fraud. The latter saw Mr. Mastriano organize transportation for protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 2021.
“He’s definitely the favorite of Trump-loving rural voters upset with the political status quo,” said Terry Madonna, a senior fellow in political affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “But the same things that make those voters love [him], is a major turn-off for swing voters in the suburbs.”
Given President Biden’s low approval ratings and skyrocketing inflation, Democrats hope that will be enough for them to win the governor’s race.
The strategy evidenced in Pennsylvania is being used by other vulnerable Democrats across the country. Most notably, Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer has spent heavily in recent days to boost his 2020 Republican challenger, Frank Pallotta, ahead of New Jersey’s June 7 primary.
Mr. Gottheimer sent a mailer earlier this month highlighting Mr. Pallota’s previous endorsement by Mr. Trump. A New Jersey Democratic strategist familiar with Mr. Gottheimer’s campaign said the mailing was targeted exclusively at Republican voters.
“This was a no-brainer by Josh,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity on the topic. “In what is shaping up to be a difficult year nationally, it’s preferable to run against a known commodity, especially if you can reuse the same playbook that got you elected last time.”
Mr. Gottheimer, who represents a district that Mr. Biden narrowly carried in 2020, did not return requests for comment on this story.
The mailer comes as Mr. Pallota is facing a spirited GOP primary against a first-time candidate against Nick De Gregorio. The latter has raised more than $700,000 since jumping into the race, scoring recognition by the National Republican Campaign Committee.
Mr. Pallota has only raised around $250,000 since declaring his candidacy. But he has more name recognition and endorsements from local GOP officials, given his prior campaign.
The overt push into GOP primaries comes after Democrats spent the past six months filing legal challenges to knock Republican candidates off the ballot to their benefit.
A firm run by Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias, in particular, strategically worked to boot from the ballot candidates who could pose general election threats. They have also moved to force moderate incumbent House Republicans into head-to-head primary matchups with far-right rivals.