From 1946 to 2018, fewer than two percent of primary challengers to sitting members of the House of Representatives have successfully ousted the incumbent.
But Michigan Republican candidate John Gibbs’ narrow and otherwise unlikely primary victory over first-term Rep. Peter Meijer was bolstered by an unusual ally: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which dropped nearly half a million dollars—more than Gibbs’ campaign spent in its entirety—on an “attack” ad designed to sell Gibbs to the GOP base.
The ad described Gibbs as “too conservative” for his district and touted his many ties to former President Donald Trump, whom Meijer voted to impeach after the storming of the Capitol in January of 2021. And though there was little public polling on this primary, what data we do have from a February poll suggests linking Gibbs to Trump was an effective way to boost his chances. That survey found Meijer held a comfortable 26-13 lead over Gibbs—until pollsters informed respondents of the candidates’ takes on Trump, at which point Gibbs surged to 37 percent support and Meijer plummeted to 19 percent.
By Monday, Meijer said internal polling had put the two percentage points just a point apart. On Tuesday, we learned his larger war chest and higher name recognition weren’t enough to save him, which means the Democrats got what they wanted: a more polarizing and therefore less competitive Republican contender for the general election in November.
Or, at least, that’s the theory. But for now, in practice, what the DCCC has done is help Trump toss out of office one of the very few congressional Republicans willing to tell the truth about the 2020 election. This is a short-term win for Democrats, perhaps, but it doesn’t bode well for the democracy they claim to uphold.
As Mother Jones reported Sunday, some Democratic representatives have called it “unconscionable” and “just damn wrong.”
“We cannot credibly defend democracy and then prop up candidates who are an existential threat to the very democracy that we’re defending,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York. “No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” charged Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida.
But their position is clearly not that of their party’s leadership. The DCCC is a powerful institution, and it’s not the only major Democratic organ meddling in Republican primaries to defeat the more sensible and principled candidates. As The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis has detailed, the Democratic Governors’ Association (DGA) spent over $1 million helping Dan Cox, a QAnon-inflected, Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, and the DGA and Democratic candidates have similarly supported Trump acolytes in gubernatorial races in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Their logic is presumably that of Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who managed Trump’s second impeachment trial (which Meijer backed, at considerable risk to his own political career less than two weeks after entering Congress). Raskin told Axios that although he can “certainly understand an argument that it's categorically wrong to do anything that would objectively help insurrectionist election deniers. But in the real world of politics,” offering that help is strategically rational if it means Democrats win.
And that’s the crux of the issue: Is the goal to preserve American democracy, as Democrats are wont to claim, or is the goal for Democrats to win at any cost? Raskin and others of his ilk would contend these aims are one and the same. Democrats must “hold the House against a pro-insurrectionist, election-denying GOP majority,” he said in that statement to Axios.
But that idea rests on several claims not in evidence: that the Trumpist candidates won’t win in November; that Democrats stand a serious shot at holding onto Congress (most forecasts currently have the GOP taking at least the House); that Democrats will actually do something substantive to protect democracy if they’re given another two years of trifecta governance; and that the Democratic Party is capable of thinking past its own fate in the next national election.
One of the things Trump’s four years in office made inescapably clear is that Democratic leadership is not primarily concerned with shoring up representative government, good governance, and the rule of law. If they were, they’d have used their congressional majorities—especially now, with a fellow Democrat in the White House—to make institutional changes to preclude abuses of power from a Trump restored to office in 2024 or indeed any corrupt, feckless president of any party at any time. They would have built strong structural boundaries around executive power itself. They would have stopped bleating about fascism and made the position of the American presidency inhospitable to fascist exercises of power.
And perhaps they would have recognized that a model of democracy in which one party actively encourages extremism in the other party, then sanctimoniously condemns that same extremism while disingenuously draping itself in the flag of anti-extremism, is not, in fact, a sustainable model of functional and peaceful democracy.
“Since the election of Donald Trump—and especially since January 6—Democrats have claimed that democracy is under grave threat,” Meijer himself noted in a cri de coeur for Common Sense on Monday. And the “only thing that has been more nauseating” than watching the “unraveling” of his own party, he continued, “has been the capacity of my Democratic colleagues to sell out any pretense of principle for political expediency—at once decrying the downfall of democracy while rationalizing the use of their hard-raised dollars to prop up the supposed object of their fears.”
If Democrats believe democracy is in danger, they should act like it. Learning a lesson from their own recklessness in Michigan would be a good place to start.