Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
It had become the stuff of legend in Washington.
In 2012, first-term Sen. Claire McCaskill had become an endangered political species – a Democrat in the increasingly Republican state of Missouri. And she knew the odds of winning re-election that year were against her.
As McCaskill recalled in detail years later, she took the calculated risk of meddling in the Republican senate primary by engaging in a brazen bit of political jiu jitsu.
McCaskill’s campaign unleashed a fusillade of negative ads against the most extreme, right-wing candidate, a state senator named Todd Akin, deliberately attacking him for the very positions and controversial comments they knew from polling would endear him to the Republican base.
McCaskill and her strategists deemed Akin her most beatable general election opponent and set out to get him there.
Investing $1.7 million of her own campaign funds, the Democratic senator helped lift Akin from a distant second place to Republican nominee – and then soundly trounced him by more than 15 points in the general election. It became a fabled Washington parlor trick.
McCaskill is a friend, and I was happy to see her return to the Senate. But 10 years later in the era of Donald Trump, as Democrats across the country re-run her primary intervention strategy, I fear the tactic. Shrewd as it may seem, it feeds the growing jaundice about politics. But more than that, a miscalculation could put extremists in positions of authority.
In the swing state of Pennsylvania, Democrats and Dem-allied groups spent millions during the primary season attacking Doug Mastriano, a Trump-loving, election-denying, abortion-banning candidate for governor as “too conservative” for the state.
The move helped strengthen Mastriano’s primary lead over potentially more electable Republicans, and that was further reinforced when Trump, sensing a winner, jumped on his bandwagon.
And with Mastriano’s primary victory, Democrats continued to invest to influence other Republican races.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is a billionaire, and the Democratic Governors Association together spent $30 milllion boosting state Sen. Darren Bailey’s chances with attack ads that highlighted his Trumpian ties and right-wing bona fides. At the same time, they pummeled Mayor Richard Irvin, a more moderate, African American candidate from suburban Aurora, with negative ads that were actually meant to defeat him.
They got the desired result. Bailey won Tuesday’s primary in a landslide.
It was raw politics but in the case of Pennsylvania, a swing state, it comes at greater risk. Now that Mastriano carries the Republican banner, tribal loyalties have kicked in. A recent poll showed him trailing state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, by just four points. Trump lost Illinois twice by some 17 points, and Pritzker, relatively popular and willing to spend whatever is necessary, is now heavily favored to win re-election.
Full disclosure, when I was a Democratic campaign consultant, I once produced ads to meddle in a Republican primary by attacking the well-heeled Republican frontrunner. But the attacks, which were about the opponent’s questionable business practices and not his ideology, were meant to defeat, not elevate him in that primary.
This is a different kettle of fish.
Each Democratic campaign will argue that the candidates who ultimately won did so because they represented what Republican primary voters wanted. Indeed, in the Colorado primary Tuesday, the Akin play didn’t work. A right-winger boosted by Democratic attack ads lost the Republican nomination for the US Senate. The market decided.
But politics isn’t a game, as much as we often treat it as one. At a time when faith in our system and elections is so strained, I can’t help thinking that this only adds to growing cynicism about their legitimacy. And at a time when we need both parties to produce responsible choices, this cross-party manipulation works against it.
But setting that aside, I have a larger and more practical concern.
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As a longtime campaign practitioner, I’m no prig about hardball politics. In both Pennsylvania and Illinois, the Akin play may well wind up being remembered as winning politics in a tough year – unless the year proves so tough that the old parlor trick becomes a risky ploy gone terribly wrong.
After all, how many Democratic strategists cheered Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016, convinced that the reality show star would be a dead bang loser in the fall?