Democrats’ Chaotic Skullduggery
There was some quiet meddling going on.
An odd piece in the NYT by Blake Hounshell explains “How Democrats Quietly Meddled in G.O.P. Senate Recruitment.” I thought perhaps this was going to be a rehash of the story about Democrats spending money to boost MAGA candidates in GOP primaries; instead, it’s about efforts to discourage more moderate Republicans from running.
They called it the “Summer of Chaos.”
In 2021, as Democratic strategists brainstormed ways to defend their threadbare control of the Senate, they began an aggressive communications strategy with the goal of choosing their adversaries.
Their best chance of hanging on, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan told staff members at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was to focus like a laser on the four seats they needed to keep: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire.
“We knew we needed to localize the races and disqualify our Republican opponents,” said David Bergstein, the group’s communications director.
But Peters, the committee’s chairman, also authorized a bit of skulduggery. The emerging plan had two main components: deterring potentially strong Republicans from entering races against those “core four” Democratic incumbents, and “maximizing the chaos” within Republican primaries.
Chaos and skullduggery! Oh, my.
In this, Democrats had an unwitting ally in Donald Trump, who insisted on supporting only candidates who would back his stolen-election lies.
Two Republican governors had Democrats especially worried: Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Doug Ducey of Arizona. Both were popular, relatively moderate and skilled at raising cash. Republican leaders in Washington were recruiting them hard to run for Senate.
But each man had points of vulnerability, Democrats thought. Could they keep them out?
It’s hard to say how much of a difference the Democrats’ meddling ultimately made. Some Republicans and allies of Ducey and Sununu say that other factors — including a shared disdain for the Senate and, perhaps, presidential ambitions — were more central to their calculations.
But either way, their decisions not to run loom large in the rearview mirror. Republicans failed to reclaim the Senate in large part because of unproven candidates chosen by Trump. Now, the recriminations are flying.
It’s certainly true that Republicans would have had better odds had Sununu and Ducey run. Maggie Hassan beat Don Bolduc pretty handily but Sununu is a much better candidate. I’m honestly not sure that Mark Kelly was that vulnerable but, again, Ducey had to be stronger than Blake Masters.
But what chaotic skullduggery did Democrats unleash?
For Sununu, the Democrats’ potential leverage was his shifting position on abortion.
Running for governor in 2016, he had declared himself “pro-choice,” albeit with some caveats. About two-thirds of voters in New Hampshire say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, polls show.
In June 2021, however, pushed by conservative lawmakers, Sununu signed a budget bill that restricted abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. Sununu had little choice; vetoing the budget would have shut down the government while the pandemic was still raging. But in approving it, wrote James Pindell of The Boston Globe, the governor had just “touched one place that no Republican should ever go in New Hampshire.”
Democrats sensed an opportunity. They had picked up on gossip that some in Sununu’s inner circle were worried about the abortion attacks. True or not, they began ginning up news coverage on the topic.
“Targeting Sununu over abortion will be a key part of the Democrat’s playbook,” read one article in The Concord Monitor, referring to the incumbent senator up for re-election, Maggie Hassan. “It’s easy to imagine ads and commercials blasting Sununu over abortion flooding the TV and radio airwaves and on digital.”
Sununu was under heavy pressure to run from Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who said he would make a “great candidate,” and from Senator Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He appeared torn.
Then he stunned McConnell and his advisers in November 2021 by not only turning them down without notice, but also publicly attacking the job of senator as “sitting around having meeting after meeting, waiting for votes to maybe happen.”
“Unbelievable,” Josh Holmes, a political adviser to McConnell, tweeted in reaction.
Allies of Sununu say abortion had nothing to do with the decision. “This is not a guy who backs down from a fight,” said Dave Carney, a longtime New Hampshire Republican operative.
“I was going to run,” Sununu said later, during a forum at Rice University. But his conversations with senators — one told him he would get more vacation time, while another said he would no longer have to balance a budget — soured him on the idea. “They said all the wrong things.”
Twisting the knife, he went on: “You cannot ever convince me, if you took all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, got rid of them tomorrow, and replaced them with 100 random adults in this room right now, that we would be worse off. No way.”
So . . . they subtly previewed a rather obvious attack venue? One that, it seems to me, would be pretty easy to counter. (“My position on the issue has long been clear. I had no choice but to sign the bill—and Roe was still in place at the time, so it was really meaningless.”)
Honestly, it sounds like Sununu really had no desire to be in the Senate. And who could blame him? While many Senators are former Governors (indeed, both of Virginia’s are, which is pretty typical since we don’t allow Governors to serve consecutive terms) it really is a step down. And being a Senator with an opposition party President would be even less rewarding; you’re basically ensured to spend the next two years getting nothing done. Beyond that, if Sununu has his eye on running for President, taking a lot of votes on controversial issues only harms him.
For Ducey, the Democrats’ point of leverage was his refusal in 2020 to go along with Trump’s insistence that the presidential election was stolen.
Throughout 2021, Trump made it known that he would not endorse Ducey if he ran for Senate, and other Republican candidates in Arizona began competing for the former president’s affections.
But Republican leaders ignored Trump and kept recruiting Ducey aggressively. And though Ducey repeatedly said he was not interested, Democrats grew nervous in January 2022 when they caught wind from people in Arizona of fresh discussions between Ducey, McConnell and Scott.
Democrats tried to force those quiet conversations into the open by passing word of the talks to reporters in Washington, hoping that Trump would see the stories and tee off on Ducey. The Arizona governor, meanwhile, would get an inkling of what he could expect if he entered the primary.
At a rally in Arizona on Jan. 15, 2022, Trump duly obliged, trashing Ducey as “a terrible, terrible representative of your state.”
By then, Ducey had already made up his mind — but he left McConnell and Scott hanging for two more months. “If you’re going to run for public office, you have to really want the job,” he finally wrote in a letter to donors in March. “Right now I have the job I want.”
Trump gloated. “Smart move, Doug,” he said in a statement.
So, the bastard Democrats told reporters in Washington that Ducey was talking to Senate leadership about running? That’s some chaotic skullduggery if ever I heard it.
By the time their vicious primary season ended, Republicans had nominated five political novices backed by Trump: Blake Masters, a hard-edge venture capital executive, in Arizona; Don Bolduc, a far-right retired Army officer, in New Hampshire; Herschel Walker, a troubled former football star, in Georgia; Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon, in Pennsylvania; and J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, in Ohio.
All struggled to raise money, build campaign infrastructures or appeal to independent voters. Only Vance won outright, with Walker’s race heading to a runoff next month.
In August, McConnell griped publicly about the “quality” of the candidates that Trump had saddled him with, amid a running feud with Scott over tactics, strategy and money.
Republicans are now having a public throw-down about just whose fault it is that they lost the Senate. Conservative elites are blaming Trump; his allies are blaming McConnell; Scott and McConnell’s allies are blaming one another.
There’s plenty of grist for each side, but the case against Trump and his collection of “goofball” candidates, as McConnell privately called them, seems stronger.
Well . . . yes.
I mean, at the end of the day, Republican primary voters chose these candidates. As Steven Taylor has explained here multiple times, our primary system is just a really dumb way to choose candidates for these offices, in that they attract a small, unrepresentative subset of voters and, in most cases, allow plurality winners. But Democrats use the same basic system and are much less prone to nominating unqualified nutjobs.
In the first nine months of 2022, Republicans in eight battleground states raised $140 million less than their Democratic counterparts. That forced the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC close to McConnell, to try to pull the G.O.P. candidates’ “chestnuts out of the fire,” as Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana put it, with nearly $260 million in spending across eight states.
Even so, Democrats were still outspending Republicans in most battleground races — and lashing them with attack ads portraying them as venal, phony and extreme on abortion.
“This is the second cycle in a row that their candidates didn’t raise money,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, a group close to Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. “There’s something systemic going on.”
I tend to agree with David Byler that campaign money doesn’t matter above a certain threshold. But there’s a circularity at work, too: poor candidates don’t attract a lot of money because they’re a poor investment.
Deep into the piece, we get back to a practice that, while effective, I think is genuinely problematic:
During the New Hampshire primary, Democrats ran ads aimed at helping Bolduc defeat Chuck Morse, a state lawmaker favored by the Republican establishment. Sununu, who backed Morse, said Bolduc was “a conspiracy theory extremist,” and McConnell’s allies ran ads against him.
But, otherwise, this is just a story about Republicans nominating terrible candidates.
The committee, short on money, pulled out of New Hampshire first. By late October, after spending $16 million, the S.L.F. concluded that its ads were no longer moving voters in Bolduc’s direction, and decided to redeploy $6 million elsewhere. But days later, in an unusual reversal, the committee announced a fresh $1 million investment after an internal poll showed Bolduc within two percentage points, while Scott made a point of campaigning with him.
“It looked like a margin-of-error race going into Election Day,” said Chris Hartline, the communications director for the N.R.S.C. Bolduc ended up losing by nine points.
The story was similar with Masters. He raised just $13 million for his own campaign on his way to the biggest loss of any Republican Senate candidate in Arizona since 1988. But even as votes were still being tallied, he blasted McConnell.
“Had he chosen to spend money in Arizona,” Masters complained on Fox News, “this race would be over and we would be celebrating a Senate majority right now.”
As my colleague Shane Goldmacher reported, McConnell’s allies had hard data to back up their dim view of Masters. They concluded in late summer that he lacked the ingredients to beat Kelly regardless of what they might spend. Independent voters and “soft Republicans” in the S.L.F.’s polling and focus groups found him especially unpalatable, while Kelly’s image barely budged.
So, apparently, national media pundits weren’t the only ones fooled by late-breaking polling. Regardless, it’s not like the party can’t raise a few million dollars to replace the wasted spending.
For all the Republicans’ infighting and money troubles, Democrats could easily have lost the Senate. If Senator Raphael Warnock wins the Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia against Walker, they will have saved all their “core four” — making 2022 the first year their party has not lost any Senate seats during a midterm election under a Democratic president since 1962, and the first time no Senate incumbent has lost in either party since 1914.
But, again, this is about candidate selection, not skullduggery. Normal Republicans can still win in Arizona and New Hampshire. But it’s really hard to beat a career fighter pilot and astronaut. Georgia is turning purple but it’s still fundamentally a Republican state. But Democrats managed to run a charismatic preacher against a whacko appointed Senator and then a moron ex-football player and serial abortionist.
Again, I think funding weak opposition candidates is dirty pool. But floating obvious attack points to the press? Not so much.
I’m really having a hard time with the idea that telling the truth about somebody in a timely way that gets them nominated is problematic. I just don’t see it.
And all of this just underscores how badly the Citizens United case had damaged our electoral process. It’s not just who gets the fire hose of money and who doesn’t, is the over reliance on media ads that favor negative attacks and scare tactics over policy discussions. It can literally gin up issues that aren’t even issues (See “Crime” which only started to get talked about in September”, CRT, and Kids requesting litter boxes in school).
The reliance on big donor money, which I accurately consider legal bribes, has a lot to do with what’s wrong with our democracy but it also what fuels the kind of nonsense that the OP was taking about. But the overriding need to fundraise also fuels this latter day Machiavellian nonsense that parties are reduced to as well as the time and effort it takes away from crafting policies and laws (otherwise know and legislating).
I’m kind of over wads of cash from well-funded PACs being helicoptered into otherwise sleepy races around the country influencing local elections. We now have to put up with a new School Board member who is an outright loon who was backed by outside money, has no real clue as to the issues surrounding local school issues, was financed to a degree that local school board races are never financed, and will do nothing but be perpetually disruptive to the people who are actually trying to improve things.
So please, I really don’t need an autopsy on Democratic perfidy when the entire system is being manipulated at the financial level. The Democrats are, at best, just trying to keep up with GOP innovations in propaganda. It takes money to run fake think thanks, push polls, Astroturf issue development, and propping up spoiler candidates. Is there one person here who thinks that Hershel Walker is really the one calling the shots in his campaign? Left to his own devices does anyone here think he could have organized a successful campaign on his own?
Yes, it true that the most money doesn’t always win, but when it does, it typically crowds out earnest people who are just trying to makes things better and it seems to favor performance artists. On the other hand I’m grateful to see the GOP finally getting behind art’s funding.
@Rick DeMent: There are a lot of problems with our campaign system but Citizens United is not nearly as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Regardless, as I thought clear from the OP, as much as I respect Hounshell as an analyst, I find this particular report a bizarre nothingburger.
Saw this article yesterday and after reading it thought, WTF?
There are several commentators here who have the hobby horse that the Times picks on Dems and never Rs. Well the pages of the Times have been filled with R’s in disarray for the past week and Hounshell’s piece is simply a different take.
Sununu and Ducey passed on the Senate, because it is a horrible place to be. Particularly under do nothing McConnell on the R side. Not sure about Ducey, but NH is awash with rumors of a possible Sununu for prez campaign (or more likely VP). A state house is a better base for that, than the senate chamber.
One of the quote articles states: “It’s hard to say how much of a difference the Democrats’ meddling ultimately made.”
Not that hard at all: it almost certainly mattered very little. This is just someone trying to find something to write about absent real evidence.
Indeed. But my point isn’t so much that primaries produce nut jobs as much as primaries open the door for the kinds of outcomes that we have seen. Matches can be used to light the grill or to engage in arson, after all.
My main point really is that the primaries make it possible for parties to be taken over with less effort than a party takeover should take (and more significantly, primaries as deployed in the US discourage serious third party formation).
@James Joyner: Jon Tester heartily disagrees with you on CU. He thinks it’s a direct threat to democracy.
It’s the difference between being ideological and voting for your ideology, and being pragmatic and trying to get a candidate who can win. Biden is a prime example, Jim Clyburn did not push him out of love for his positions, and few Democrats appreciate what he did to Anita Hill, or for being the senator from the big credit card companies.
Let’s be clear, the ads aimed at helping Bolduc (and the other GOP crazies) were ads accurately linking him to Trump and Bolduc’s extreme views. Substantively, they were the same type of ads the Dems would/could run in the general election. The only “catch” is that those type of characteristics were attractive to the GOP base and their primary voters.
The GOP problems are the knock-on effects of the Southern Strategy, which picked up the Christian Evangelicals along with the other Southern stuff – religious people don’t do compromise.
@James Joyner: Could we not nitpick about the limited role of the Citizens United decision, accept that it’s become a recognized shorthand for referring to the whole world of political money, and talk about how the money is ruining our politics?
Is the effect of Citizens United really limited? – it looks like a major driver to me.
I did read that and I respectfully disagree with your analysis and the analysis of the link. The link was a rehash of money spent on campaigns but what it doesn’t capture is that fact that these PACs can do almost anything they what with the money including spend money outside of direct support of political races. Also the selectivity of which reach to dump money into. Your links don’t even touch on the effect of primary races that all of this money at their disposal
My point is that Citizens United has had an overall deleterious effect on only on races, but think tanks, issue development, candidate selection, and it has increasing upped the minimum buy in for seats there were usually funded strictly at the local level. It’s nonsense. Not only that, but the deleterious effect of constant repetition of silly nonsense that people start to believe after a while. Even if a candidate loses, the harm is still there in the form of people who believe absolute rubbish after having sat while commercial after commercial blears on in the background.
It has turned our electorate into functional idiots. It’s effect has a lot to do with “candidate quality” as some people are just financed and propped up, while others have to do that hard work of fundraising. The result is that the dynamic favors loud kooks who are good a getting attention rather then candidates who are earnest and work hard only to get pummeled by out of state (or out of country) money before their candidacy can get off the ground.
The whole “crime” issue was manufactured out of whole cloth. Crime is a fraction of what it was in the early 90’s, what we are looking at is localized blips. but stating in September the whole “crime” issue was ginned up, PAC’s came in and stated to hammer on it then it filtered to the primary candidates then all of a sudden we are arguing about “crime” which is not really a huge problem, but from the reaction of voters listening not only to the commercials, but having the same talking points be reinforced by the right with echo chamber we now have to deal with it as if it was a legitimate on-the-ground issue most or even a significant minority of people were actually dealing with.
Not to mention that a lot of this money is freely coming in from outside the country. No other country does it this way and because it’s bat s**t crazy and has a corrupting influence on candidates, on the electorate and it a hidden tax on constituents who now have to raise enough money to counter some rich clown in a state on the other side of the country or the other side of the globe.
The CU decision was bad law making our politician process way more corrupt in the sense that lawmakers have to treat fundraising (and the compromises that that brings) as their #1 activity. All other issues, including improving the lives of their constituents, are way down the list.
But you are correct, Citizens United isn’t the only decision but it’s a useful short hand for all the decisions that have opened the floodgate to our electoral process to unlimited money such as Buckley v. Valeo, National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, and FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. These were bad decisions, way worse then Roe, way worse the Brown v Board of Education or any of the other decisions that right wingers like to point our as “judicial activism”.
In my, never to be humble, opinion 🙂
@Steven L. Taylor:
Geez, it must be exhausting keeping up the bothsiderism when the two parties are behaving so differently.
When the Democrats play politics, it’s skullduggery. When the Republicans deny election results and incite the mob, it’s playing politics. That’s Olympic-level mental gymnastics!
@Rick DeMent: @gVOR08: @charon: I don’t disagree that it’s problematic that very rich people have an outsized impact on choosing our candidates because they need so much money to get elected. Citizens United really had a marginal impact on that, as it simply applied a pre-existing standard to corporations—but even that was only a tweak to what corporations could already do.
@charon: Carrying on the theme of money, the GOP problems follow from the whole Party being built on a foundation of lies. They are a party of plutocrats dependent on lies and money to retain a “populist” voter base. They pretend to care about race, guns, abortion, gays, CRT, and whatever panic they come up with next to get tax cuts for the wealthy and gut regulation of corporations.
Candidate quality is a problem? They have to campaign on lies so they’re limited to a pool of the ignorant and/or venal. Abortion? It’s biting them because they’ve been lying to themselves about it for fifty years. They don’t have enough money? The craziness has driven away even a lot of corporate donors.
You raise the excellent point that Ds don’t have this same problem with primaries. It’s because they haven’t, like FOX/GOP, spent decades feeding lies to a base increasingly detached from reality.
There is nothing comparable to the Conservamedia system anchored by Fox on the (D) side because the (D) do not revolve around the sort of ideology and beliefs that support that kind of system. Contra the both siders, MSNBC is not a left version of Fox.
The MAGA true believers have viewed Fox as their enemy for several years now.
When Obama, in the 2010 State of the Union, criticized the Citizens United decision for opening the door to foreign money Alito famously mouthed “not true”. Proving that Alito is too stupid, or too willfully blind, to understand the nature of modern corporations. Although it had been explained to him in the dissent on the decision.
But others will point out that not all the corporate money is due to Citizens United. An argument akin to, “It’s not a clip, it’s a magazine.”
That seems true, at least at the fringe. I’ve not seen good numbers. FOX seems to have recovered some market share. But what it means is FOX was the gateway drug to OAN or whatever fringe Qanon website. I find it convenient to use “FOX” as the face of the whole conservative mediaplex, just as I use “Koch” as the face of the whole Billionaire Boys Club.
Regarding money, I would say Leonard Leo and The Federalist Society have had way more negative influence than any ad campaign. The creep has spent a fortune putting in judges devoted to an idiotic vision of the world, and it’s significant that every GOP hack blames Trump and not Leonard Leo for giving the GOP Dobbs.
When you think of them as the drug pusher hooking them on heroin, it’s certain they aren’t the MAGAs friend.
Looking at Fox as the gateway drug to OANN and RSNB is a good perspective, the difference being that unlike the MAGAs, the heroin junkies don’t despise the marijuana provider.
So this is what, purity testing? Factions do develop in ideological movements, Murdoch looks to be taking sides against TFG. (Murdoch was skeptical of TFG early on, too).
No purity testing on my part.If Fox and Murdoch are no longer touting Trump, good for them. I’ll take anti-Trumpism anywhere I can get it.
Not touting Trump does not mean not touting Trumpism, it just means making Trump a scapegoat while finding prettier faces to put on it.
I was looking for a non-awkward way to state that I’ll accept help from anyone who’s solidly against Trump.
I admire those lifelong Republicans such as Tom Nichols who saw exactly what Trump was back in 2015 and didn’t hesitate to say so.
I caught a bit of David Muir’s interview with Pence on Muir’s evening news show. You know, Pence has a really punchable face. He was walking, rather clumsily, a fine line trying to say how horribly he’d been treated by Trump without actually attacking Trump.
I kept wanting Muir to ask something like, “When did you recognize Trump was a threat to the country, and why didn’t you do anything about it?” But, at least in the excerpt, nothing close.
If Pence is hoping not to lose the MAGAs, he should know that he lost them forever on Jan. 6, 2021 when he certified the election.
Having worked on campaigns, and having had direct experience in working with PACs, the biggest problem in politics is not the amount of cash, it is the opaqueness of where the money is from, and who it is going to.
No cash and full disclosure would go a very long way in cleaning things up.
Citizens have a right to know who is funding who and what.
Because their isn’t a Left-leaning ecosystem in place to push people into the mindset required to nominate nutjobs. It easier the manipulate the human psyche than most people believe but it does require some effort and planning.
Democrats discovered the turnout power of fear this cycle. This is the first year for them with “Democracy on the ballot” Republicans have been there for 30 years. Lets see if Dem Strategy was only a one-off–or stay there indefinitely. Fear works–but 2 fearful polarized tribes are dangerous.
If they stay there indefinitely you will see D nutjobs in a few cycles.
Time to see objective reality for what it really is.
This is absolutely NOT skulduggery in any fashion. This is Democrats playing by EXACTLY THE SAME rules as Republicans — and in fact not going anywhere near as hard after R’s as R’s have gone after D candidates.
If we’re going to talk about skulduggery, how many times have Democrats been called Devils Walking Among Us or Groomers or Worthy Of Second Amendment Solutions or … Dear God, the list is overwhelming and quite frankly infinite.
Asserting that any Democratic fighting back is Magically Over The Top is pure 100% unadulterated abuser logic.. and frankly the response can and should be for Democrats to go after R’s even harder.
If R’s don’t like it… Republicans can go cry.
Republicans don’t get to be the only ones doing intentional personal attacks any more.
This reminds me of: “We had to destroy the village to save it”… but in a good way.
Look at the intent: If moderate republicans didn’t run, then those Trump-Affirming-Election Denying-MAGA-cockroaches would scurry forward for their opportunity.
While it was a gamble, suddenly there would be a lot of voices saying VERY loudly all the things on record that were usually just whispered behind closed doors.
And did they ever take that opportunity! Cancel Soc Sec & Medicare! Nationwide abortion ban! Other ridiculous argle-bargle!
The electorate was repelled. The result of the election put MAGA and Trump in question.
Republicans in disarray! ( I’m OK with it. )
However, we will see all this go to the back burner when the GOP celebrates its…
Or some other crap like that. Because the propaganda machine is well funded.
One could say that they are United in that.
(… I’ll see myself out.)
@Liberal Capitalist: As noted in the piece linked up thread, Citizens United and various of its antecedents pointed in that direction as a way of achieving Congressional intent without violating the 1st Amendment. For whatever reason, Congress has not gone in that direction. I would very much support disclosure requests, at least for large donations. (There are legitimate retaliation fears for small donors who might go against the wishes of their bosses.)
@CSK: It’s too bad that Pence decided not to run in 2016. He doesn’t realize that Republicans were never going to vote for him. He could have had the question out of his way and gone with his life, but noooooooooo.