A Risky Tactic: Democrats Supporting Extremist Republican Candidates to Enhance November Prospects

A Politico article by Stephen Shepard highlights efforts by Democrats in several primary races to influence the outcome of Republican primaries to boost far right candidates that they believe will be easier to beat in November:

Tuesday’s races feature four races in which Democratic candidates or groups are seeking to influence Republican primary voters, including a more-than-$30-million effort in the Illinois governor’s race. There are also multi-million-dollar campaigns to boost far-right Republican statewide candidates in Colorado, the one-time swing state where then-President Donald Trump was trounced two years ago.

Cross-party influence efforts can take two forms: 1) independent spending on media and 2) organized or spontaneous efforts by supporters of one party to vote in the primary of the other party to favor a particular opposing party candidate. The first tactic, cross-over spending on a primary contest, is primarily what seems to be going on in the campaigns leading up to Tuesday’s primaries, and we shall see how successful it is.  

The other tactic, cross-over voting, was much debated decades ago as states moved increasingly to various types of open primary rules.  (In closed primary states, voting in another party’s primaries is more evocatively described as party-raiding.)  A number of ELB people were involved in a case involving California’s blanket primary, and subsequently produced a book on the topic (Cain, Bruce E., and Elisabeth R. Gerber, editors Voting at the Political Fault Line: California’s Experiment with the Blanket Primary. Berkeley:  University of California Press,2002.). The conventional wisdom that emerged from this and other studies is that most cross-over voting is sincere and not strategic: that is, voters were entering the other primary when there was no contested contest on their side of the ballot to support the other party candidate that was sincerely their top choice, not the one that they least preferred but was thought to easier to beat.

A recent post in the Monkey Cage by Christopher Cooper and Michael Bitzer reports a similar finding. They have evidence that enough Democrats went through the process of re-registering as Independents to vote in South Carolina’s semi-open primary and defeat Madison Cawthorn.

Given the growing number of safe seats enhanced to some degree by the “make incumbents safer in the face of electoral uncertainty strategy” that prevailed in many state redistricting efforts, one wonders whether we will see more cross-over voting if Trump and his followers are on the ballot in 2024 running against another less plausibly sinister Republican.  Or perhaps, Democratic voters will cross-over to support any remaining pro-choice Republicans in safe Republican seats.

People crossing over sincerely are doing what reformers wanted when they pushed for more open primary rules.  The intent was to allow independents and moderates from the other party to create centripetal forces on the opposing party contest, producing more moderate candidates on both sides.  To date, this has not happened neither frequently nor effectively enough to lessen polarization. 

But apparently, it can occasionally take out an extremist with lots of personal problems like Madison Cawthorn.  I guess we can thank heaven for small political favors.  Crossing over to favor candidates like Donald Trump or Madison Cawthorn because they would be easier to beat is however a much riskier bet, and probably one most Democrats should not take. 

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