Written by Nadia Innab

The 2022 primaries saw a risky tactic from Democrats in an attempt to win key races across the country. Democratic issue group spending in the primaries sometimes supported those candidates viewed more vulnerable come November. Democratic advertisers used a portion of their ad money to bolster far-right candidates in Republican primaries in hopes that they would be easier to beat in the subsequent general elections.

We tracked broadcast ad spending and messaging to determine if the strategy worked come November. Overall, we saw $33.4M spent on ads across eleven primaries by Democratic advertisers supporting right-wing candidates in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

A map of the US with states that had Democratic spending in Republican primaries.

In total, Democrats meddled in 12 primaries this year, with ten races seeing broadcast and cable expenditures. The two races that did not see traditional advertising were Colorado’s Eighth Congressional District and Arizona Governor. In CO CD-08, House Majority PAC spent $15K on digital ads supporting Republican Lori Saine and in Arizona, the state Democratic Party posted a press release that criticized Karrin Taylor Robson (R) and tried to boost Trump-endorsed Kari Lake.

The Republican primary that saw the most spending from a Democratic advertiser was the IL Governor primary. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) spent $15M on six ads supporting Trump-endorsed Darren Bailey (R) and opposing Richard Irvin (R). In comparison, all other Republican issue groups spent a total $4.6M in the primary. Ads from the DGA called Bailey “too conservative” and said he was “embracing Trump’s agenda.” Trump-endorsed Darren Bailey ended up winning the primary by over 40 points, and he lost in the general by over ten points, making this a success for Democrats.

Other races in which the Democrat-backed GOP candidate won in the primary were MD Governor, MI CD-03, NH CD-02, and NH Senate. In three out of these five successful races, Democratic issue group spending was more than all Republican issue groups combined in the primary. The rhetoric in ads that were successful in helping the extreme Republican win focused on topics important to the Republican Party and used phrases that would be attractive to far-right voters. An ad from Senate Majority PAC attacked Republican NH Senate candidate Chuck Morse for taking money from lobbyists, and this ad called Republican MI CD-03 candidate John Gibbs “too conservative” for his immigration and education policies.

Overall, Democratic issue group spending was less in Republican primaries where their intended candidate lost. California’s 22nd Congressional District was one of the four races in which the strategy did not work as planned. During the primary, Democratic group House Majority PAC aired ads that attempted to increase support for Pro-Trump candidate Chris Mathys, but David Valadao, whom HMP called a “Republican in name only,” advanced to the general. House Majority PAC spent under a third as much as Republican issue groups combined during the primary. For a state like California, with a nonpartisan top-two primary, the risky strategy did not seem to pay off, as Valadao ended up winning the general election as well.

Rhetoric in ads where the far-right candidate lost the primary was similar to the ads in races where the intended candidate won. Democratic Colorado criticized Senate candidate Joe O’Dea for supporting Biden’s agenda, and this ad from Colorado Information Network mentioned Greg Lopez’ ideals of being pro-life, pro-Trump, and anti-gay marriage. The ads used the same strategy of calling the candidates “too conservative” and mentioning their pro-Trump values, but in CO Senate, VA CD-02, CO Governor, and CA CD-22, the desired Republican did not end up winning the primary.

While most of the money in support of Republicans came from issue groups, one Democratic candidate also used the tactic. PA Governor candidate Josh Shapiro (D) spent money from his campaign on an ad that lifted Republican candidate Doug Mastriano during the primary.

A pie chart of Josh Shapiro's spending in the PA Governor primary.

Out of the almost $3M that Shapiro spent in the primary on broadcast ads, one out of his three aired creatives boosted Mastriano in the Republican primary. Doug Mastriano won the primary by over 23 points, and ended up losing the general by almost 800,000 votes (or 14.8 points).

In the end, this strategy worked in seven out of the twelve meddled primaries, but a Democrat ended up ultimately winning the general election in ten out of the twelve races. Some say that Democrats should not rely on this strategy in the long run, as it may end up helping the far-right conservatives win future elections. However, with a record-setting midterm year for Democrats, most acknowledge that this strategy was an overall success in the 2022 midterms.

For further analysis on Democratic meddling in Republican primaries, read our blog about Illinois' gubernatorial primary.

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