The complicated and often cynical politics of the struggle for democracy

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Newly elected Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) voted his conscience Jan. 13, 2021. A week after rioters swarmed the U.S. Capitol, he joined the House Democratic majority in impeaching the president of at the time, Donald Trump, for stoking the violence that had filled the surrounding hallways. It was a position of principle, so obvious to many, and which Meijer soon understood as jeopardizing his own political future.

On Tuesday, this danger manifested itself. Meijer’s bid for a second term was stalled when Republican primary voters in his district voted more for John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who embraced Trump’s bogus claims about the 2020 election. one of the first votes Meijer took in Congress would be central to his ouster.

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But, as you may know, that’s not the whole story. Unlike other Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, Meijer’s district was not solidly red. For Trump’s critics, he deserved praise for his willingness to counter his party in the impeachment vote. But to the Democrats tasked with holding the House, he was still a Republican, someone who was otherwise reliable to vote with his party’s caucus against the narrow Democratic majority. Thus, a convoluted chain of reasoning ensued: Meijer’s district could elect a Republican, but not one who could point to his voting record to appeal to voters of both parties. Bring in someone like Gibbs, someone whose background would be viewed with absolute disgust by Democrats and many independents, and perhaps gain more respite in the party’s bitter fight for a majority in 2023.

Thus, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent about as much on an ad promoting Gibbs that Gibbs himself had raised since the middle of last month. And then Gibbs won.

This situation, condensed from various tensions on the right, on the left and at the national level, has been the subject of an in-depth examination in recent weeks. It is, in fact, indicative of all parties involved – but some useful nuance has been lost.

Let’s look at the results in Michigan’s 3rd congressional district, then, by asking three questions.

  1. Did Meijer lose because of the Democratic intervention?
  2. What support did Gibbs have?
  3. Was it just the sinister art of politics?

If you don’t want to read any further, the answers are “probably not”, “quite a bit” and “no”.

Did Meijer lose because of the Democratic intervention?

A quiet secret in politics is that much of it is less science than art. Campaign consultants will tell you they know how to win for the same reason weight loss systems will tell you they know how to help you shed the extra pounds. But partly because elections are increasingly complicated systems with lots of moving parts and because there are often poor controls to measure effectiveness, much of the campaigning comes down to guesswork, instinct, habit and chance.

In tight races, things get even more complicated. If your candidate narrowly wins, many factors may have contributed to the win – and many people involved in those factors (direct mail creation, endorsement, appeal to voters) will try to take credit for the narrow margin.

The Meijer-Gibbs race was relatively tight, but not a squeaker. Gibbs won by just under 4 percentage points, enough margin for observers to call the race on election night. In other words, it probably wasn’t a race in which a little push made the difference.

Was the DCCC announcement a little push? The committee spent just under $500,000 on a place that started operating end of July. That’s more than a month after early voting began in the contest, though. And in recent years, Republicans have been more likely to vote on Election Day itself. It appears to have been designed as a last-minute incitement for voters — perhaps to lessen the likelihood of Republican primary voters hearing reports that Democrats would be more worried about facing Meijer in November.

It’s hard to argue that the ad — airing when election advertising was at its most expensive — was the only reason Gibbs got about 4,000 more votes than Meijer. I don’t think many people would argue that individual last-minute TV spots can make a 4-point difference in a House primary. Again, it’s hard to know what would have happened if the spot hadn’t aired, but there’s definitely reason to think that Meijer’s fate was further affected by Trump’s endorsement from Gibbs last year than the DCCC’s involvement in this one.

(Video: DCCC, Photo: DCCC/DCCC)

What support did Gibbs have?

Speaking to CNN Wednesday morning, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) blasted the DCCC’s announcement.

“If Peter’s opponent wins and goes on to November to win, the Democrats own it. Congratulations,” he said. said on CNN’s “New Day.”

Kinzinger also voted to impeach Trump in January 2021. But he went further, serving on the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot and embracing the role of one of the leading anti-Trump voices within his left.

“Don’t keep coming and asking me where all the good Republicans standing up for democracy are,” he continued on CNN, “and then take your donor money to spend half a million dollars promoting the one of the worst Holocaust deniers out there.”

Kinzinger’s “Democrats Own That” is interesting. This is not simply because of the question of ownership, which we have just assessed, but also because it assigns all the blame to the left. The implication for a spectator is clear: Meijer lost because of the DCCC.

Still, consider Kinzinger himself. Like several other Republicans who voted for impeachment, Kinzinger decided to retire instead of fighting in a Republican primary. (His House district was redrawn to force him to compete with another incumbent – one who did not vote to impeach. Meijer’s was also redrawn to make it bluer, contributing to the DCCC’s decision to target him.) Kinzinger’s retirement clearly colored how he understood his party had changed and by the recognition that his view of Trump and the 2020 election was unpopular with the GOP.

Consider our first question in a different context. If Michael Jordan scores 90 of the Bulls’ 96 points in a 5-point win over the Nets, should the victory be attributed to the six points scored by Scottie Pippen? Even if it was the last 6 points scored, wouldn’t it be wise to give Jordan substantial credit for the win? (Extending this analogy to Michigan, of course, we don’t know how many points Pippen scored. Maybe none! But that’s not the immediate point.)

In other contexts, Kinzinger acknowledges that Republicans have gone from a party that might relish holding Trump responsible for the Capitol riot to one that demands that its candidates show loyalty to Trumpism. The DCCC announcement, shown above, simply elevates the mutual appreciation between Gibbs and Trump. It explicitly aims to tap into the existing predilection for Trumpism within the electorate. It’s Pippen who scores because Jordan is under quad cover.

Writing for The Bulwark, Johnathon Last used another analogy. If he ran ads for poison suggesting it was healthy and people drank poison, it’s his fault they got sick. If, however, he ran spots noting the toxic effects of the poison but people drank it anyway, who is to blame?

Was it just the sinister art of politics?

But there is a very fair point to make in response to this analogy: if you knew that even your negative point could get more people to drink the poison, why would you?

Some Democrats dismissed the DCCC intervention as a normal political game. There have certainly been past examples of party committees encouraging fringe candidates in the (often successful) hope that they will prove easier to defeat in general elections. The most common example here is Sharron Angle, whom Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) helped win her party’s primary in 2010 just to beat her in November.

What is happening now, however, is different. Democrats and Republicans like Kinzinger and Meijer have sounded the alarm about the threat to democracy itself posed by pro-Trump candidates and rhetoric. The DCCC has a very direct goal of winning as many seats as possible. But in this case, he actively sought to do so by helping to increase the likelihood that the House would have one more member who could reject the results of a close election.

Writing for the New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin points out that the effects are not just electoral.

“[E]even if it helps Democrats win seats…it gets Republicans – voters, activists, local officials – used to uniting behind extremists after the primary,” she wrote. “It makes them reject any taboos that might remain at this stage. And making the most conspiratorial voices the loudest changes the tone of political conversation.

In other words, the DCCC spot and other similar interventions aim to intentionally exploit and instil distrust in the system. They use reverse psychology to sell poison. As writer Josh Barro Remarksthis in itself can be a cynical game in the long run: which makes it less likely that any moderate (and potentially more viable) Republican candidate will want to settle in a poisoned mess.

“Democrats justify this political jujitsu by arguing that politics is a tough business. I don’t disagree”, Meijer wrote earlier this week. “But this tenacity is bound by certain moral limits: those who participated in the attack on the Capitol, for example, clearly exceed these limits. But over the course of the midterms, Democrats seem to have forgotten where those boundaries lie.

He went on to note (as I have done in the past) that this type of hyper-smart selection of preferred candidates is especially difficult in a year that continues to show significant signs of being particularly good for Republicans. 2010 was also a good year for Republicans (for many of the same reasons), but if Sharron Angle won, it meant one less Democratic vote. His victory did not increase the number of federal officials open to subverting the election themselves.

On Wednesday, Meijer and Gibbs attended an event in Michigan where Meijer offered Gibbs his endorsement for November. It was billed as a “unity” event, one in which the two candidates put aside their primary season differences to come together as Republicans.

The irony of such an event is obvious. Meijer lost largely because he is sayunited of his party on a central issue – an issue that was at the center of his fight against Gibbs, who took the opposite position. But for Meijer, as for the DCCC, having that vote for his party in the House was a priority.

Not that he would be inclined at this point to facilitate the work of the DCCC.

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