The DCCC's Dangerous and Dirty Midterms Gamble

by Michael C. Dorf

As most of my readers are probably aware, in the midterm primary elections, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has been funding ads labeling various Trump-aligned Republicans as "too conservative" for the constituents in purple districts in which they're running, knowing and intending that Republican primary voters would be attracted by the ads' highlighting of the candidate's association with Trump. The DCCC calculates that a Democrat has a better chance of defeating a more extreme right-wing candidate than of defeating a more traditional Republican.

The most prominent example of this strategy in the current cycle was support for ultimately successful challenger John Gibbs to displace incumbent Michigan Republican Peter Meijer--who was one of the ten Republican House members with the courage and integrity to vote to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection. Meijer and other principled Republicans are understandably outraged. After recording a few caveats, I'll explain why I mostly agree with them.

The first caveat is that DCCC support might not have made a difference in the Gibbs/Meijer race. That's the conclusion that Philip Bump, writing in the Washington Post, reaches. He thinks the margin of victory (4 percent) and the size and timing of the DCCC ad buy mean that Gibbs probably would have won even without DCCC support. I'm willing to assume Bump is right about that, but presumably ex ante the DCCC thought that the ad buy could make a difference. After all, that's why the DCCC chose to support Gibbs.

Bump and others (whom he quotes and links) also point out that Republican primary voters who found the Trump connection a selling point for Gibbs are principally responsible for the possibility that Gibbs beat Meijer. That's true but to my mind largely beside the point. A litterbug who tosses his plastic soda bottle in the ocean makes a tiny contribution to global pollution, but that's hardly an excuse.

The harder question is whether, despite the dirtiness of supporting the likes of Gibbs and other Trumpists, the strategy might be justified by the imperative of hanging onto the House of Representatives. My ultimate conclusion is no, but I want to acknowledge the countervailing considerations.

Bump notes prior circumstances in which a centrist candidate of one party has sought to bolster the chances of an extremist securing the nomination of the chief rival party in order to secure a better chance at winning the general election. He and others he quotes and links think there's a difference now: in the normal course of events, if the strategy backfires, the worst thing that happens is that there's another vote on the other side for bad policy. In the current climate, the extremists on the Republican side do not merely hold positions further to the right; in aligning with Trump and his Big Lie, they challenge the very underpinnings of democracy.

One can think about that fact in purely cost-benefit terms. Let's say that Meijer would have a 75% chance of holding the seat for the Republicans but Gibbs has only a 25% chance. Is tripling the likelihood of flipping the seat worth the one in four risk that a seat held by a conservative but principled Republican will flip to a Trumpist? The answer might depend on how closely divided one expects the House to be overall.

If one expects the overall House race to be neck-and-neck, it's possible to imagine rolling the dice by backing Gibbs (and like candidates elsewhere) in the primary, on the theory that every House seat counts. The difference between a 230-205 margin and a 229-206 margin is inconsequential, but the difference between 218-Democrats-to-217-Republicans and 218-Republicans-to-217-Republicans is enormous. So if the DCCC's polling and modeling suggest a very tight race overall, one could understand the conclusion that it's worth swallowing the bitter pill of support for Gibbs and other Trumpists--especially if Democrats have a hope of holding the Senate too. The difference between holding and losing Congress for the next two years is the difference between legislating and not for that period. 

Yet Bump, Amy Davidson Sorkin, and others rightly note that this sort of cost-benefit analysis is short-sighted. Pushing the Republican party further into Trump's orbit--even if it means there are slightly fewer Republicans in Congress in the short term--could further damage what's left of American democracy, because some day (perhaps as early as the upcoming midterms), the Republicans will regain Congress and (perhaps two years later) the Presidency. We may already be doomed by that inevitable prospect, but if we aren't it's because the likes of Peter Meijer, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger could rescue the GOP from its embrace of Trumpist authoritarianism.