Ahead of this month’s jungle primary in California’s 22nd Congressional District, Republican candidate Chris Mathys scored a television shoutout from an unanticipated spender: the Nancy Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC.
The TV ad lambasted incumbent GOP Rep. David Valadao for his vote to impeach former President Donald Trump last year and called Mathys—a far-right candidate who has previously said Trump would still be president had the 2020 votes been “properly counted”—“a true conservative” who is “100 percent pro-Trump and proud.”
Despite the House Majority PAC’s best efforts to boost Mathys’ candidacy, Valadao managed to secure a second-place runoff spot with 26.3 percent of the vote behind Democratic candidate Rudy Salas, who came in first with 44.1 percent. Mathys finished third with 22.4 percent.
Democrats have deployed similar tactics before. During her 2012 reelection campaign, former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri famously engineered the GOP primary in her favor by propping up ultra-conservative Republican candidate Todd Akin—the candidate she felt she was best-positioned to beat in the general election. “I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him,” she recalled years later in an op-ed. The tactic was wildly successful. In what was initially expected to be a competitive general election race, McCaskill sailed to victory with a 16-point margin of victory.
This midterm cycle, though, some Democratic groups face scrutiny for taking primary manipulation tactics to the next level. Instead of simply adopting the McCaskill-era reverse-psychology playbook, organizations like the House Majority PAC are running attack ads against far-right candidates that are hard to distinguish from explicit endorsements of their campaigns.
And they’re doing so while simultaneously decrying those candidates as threats to democracy. “I say to my Republican friends—and I do have some—take back your party, you’re the grand old party of America, you’ve done wonderful things for our country. You’re now being hijacked by a cult that is just not good for our country,” Pelosi said last September, months before her PAC propped up some of those same candidates.
Republican operatives are quick to point out the hypocrisy. “What I’ve seen in years past is that their ads sort of still look like an attack ad against Republicans,” said one Republican operative involved in House races, where “at least they can walk away from it and be like, ‘No, we were opposing the guy, right?’”
“What’s interesting is that they’ve sort of pivoted to almost outright endorsements,” the GOP operative added, describing the House Majority PAC ad in California as what may look to the casual observer as a “straight endorsement of Mathys.”
The ads are intended to boost the name recognition of far-right candidates who struggle to afford television ads. In that respect, they seem to have worked for Mathys, who trailed Valadao by just four points in last week’s primary despite reporting just just $302,000 on hand during last month’s FEC fundraising deadline compared to Valadao’s $1.6 million.
Unsurprisingly, Republican candidates on the receiving end of these sorts of ad blitzes are displeased with the trend. “From the donors’ perspective, I think they should be furious, because on one side, they’re being preached to that these people are a danger to democracy,” Valadao said in an interview on Monday. “And then they’re taking those same people’s money and trying to prop up those candidates and potentially put them in a spot where they can be a member of Congress.”
He said that some of his Democratic colleagues privately expressed frustrations to him about the ad. “I’ve had two Democrats last week—during one of the vote series on the floor—come up to me and apologize,” Valadao said, although he declined to name the members.
The House Majority PAC did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats are deploying similar tactics across the country and down the ballot. Take Pennsylvania, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro spent $1.7 million on TV ads boosting the conservative credentials of gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a far-right candidate who bussed rally-goers to the Capitol on January 6, 2021 and who was subpoenaed by the House Select Committee investigating the events of that day. That single ad buy amounted to more money than Mastriano’s campaign spent during the entire primary campaign.
“If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for,” said one ad paid for by the Shapiro campaign ahead of the primary. Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether it was “irresponsible” to air the ad, Shapiro defended his campaign’s decision as an effort to draw a “clear contrast” between their campaigns ahead of the general election.
Other Democratic organizations are running ads that mimic the McCaskill-era playbook. In Colorado’s GOP primary race for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett’s seat, for example, a super PAC called Democratic Colorado unveiled an ad calling 2020 election-denying candidate Ron Hanks “one of the most conservative members in the statehouse” and playing up his views on abortion, the Second Amendment, and election integrity.
It’s difficult to describe the ad as anything other than an attempt to to boost Republican support for Hanks, a “Save America March” rally attendee who had just $16,000 on hand as of late March and has struggled to publicize his campaign statewide. Republican primary polls are hard to come by this cycle, although the campaign of Hanks’ Republican opponent, Joe O’Dea, shared an internal survey conducted in late May that showed him leading Republican Hanks by a three-to-one margin.
“I think it’s gonna backfire on them,” O’Dea said in an interview on Tuesday of Democratic attempts to influence the June 28 Republican primary.
He also criticized Hanks for praising the ad as a “welcome” development in a recent interview with a local news outlet. “What’s been a little bit disturbing for me is the guy that I’m running against in this primary—Hanks—he’s embraced the money, he’s pleased to see the money show up.” Neither the Hanks campaign nor the Bennett campaign responded to requests for comment.
Democrats, meanwhile, maintain that the ads are merely intended to educate voters about extreme candidates. In Illinois’ Republican primary race for governor, for example, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) is airing ads describing state Sen. Darren Bailey as a candidate who “embraces the Trump agenda” and is “too conservative for Illinois.” Bailey is running to the right of Republican candidate Richard Irvin, whom the DGA has railed against in ads for his 15 years as a defense attorney representing clients who have been accused of child pornography, domestic abusers, and reckless homicide.
A DGA spokesman described the ads as well within the bounds of fair political play. “The DGA is wasting no time in educating the public about these Republicans,” DGA communications director David Turner said of the Illinois governor’s race ads. “These elected and formerly elected officials want to deceptively retell their histories, and we’re just filling in the gaps.”