Politics are about gaming the system. Politicians slip and slide and duck and dodge for every advantage. A sleight of hand, a shave of the truth, anything to win.
This midterm election season ushered in a new form of gamesmanship and potent weapon in campaign arsenals: meddling.
The critics are crying foul. It’s dirty politics, they say. It’s undemocratic. It’s just pragmatic politics, its proponents reply. We are in it to win it.
On Tuesday, the strategy chalked up wins for key Democratic campaigns around the nation, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s victory over Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, 54% to 43%.
The billionaire governor got there by meddling in the June 28 GOP gubernatorial primary to buy the opponent he wanted — and needed — for the general election showdown. As the GOP primary campaign kicked off early this year, it was clear that Pritzker’s most formidable opponent in the general election would be Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.
Irvin, an accomplished, popular politician, is a moderate; some said he is actually a Democrat in Republican’s clothing. And he is African American and could siphon off Black voters, Pritzker’s most reliable base.
That’s why Ken Griffin, the billionaire investment titan, fronted $50 million to back Irvin in the primary, hoping Irvin could clobber Pritzker in the fall.
Pritzker had other ideas and teamed up with the Democratic Governors Association. They meddled away, dropping tens of millions of dollars into TV ads and campaign mailers to excoriate Irvin as a Republican faker and tout Bailey’s ultraconservative bona fides.
Bailey won the June 28 GOP primary with 57% of the vote against five opponents.
It was a risky strategy. As I wrote back then, be careful what you pay for. Bailey could win.
Instead, a peeved Griffin packed up and moved to Florida. And Bailey blew it. In a deep blue state like Illinois, a GOP nominee like Bailey needed to move closer to the middle to be competitive. Instead, he embraced former President Donald Trump, doubled down on his conservative credentials and touted a far-right agenda.
Bailey alienated the biggest city in Illinois by labeling Chicago a “hellhole.” Then he moved, temporarily, from downstate Xenia and into the former John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue, promising to resurrect us from Hades. He was exposed for a 2017 Facebook post in which he compared abortion to the Holocaust.
And Pritzker handily took his hapless opponent out.
The Illinois governor wasn’t the only meddler. Democrats interfered in similar ways in other races around the nation.
This year, Democrats invested in “promoting the wackiest, most MAGA-minded Republican primary challengers. It was quite a poker play,” former Tribune columnist Eric Zorn noted in his weekly newsletter, The Picayune Sentinel.
Zorn cited a Huffington Post report that laid out the game plan: “In Republican primary after Republican primary, Democrats aired ads serving two purposes: promoting seemingly unelectable candidates to the GOP base while attacking them for a general election audience.”
Democrats pushed the most extreme, unelectable candidates in GOP primary races around the country. Election deniers. Champions of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Opponents of abortion rights. Book banners.
“On election night, those risky bets paid off. All six of the election-denying candidates on the ballot whom Democrats boosted ― three gubernatorial candidates, two House candidates and a Senate candidate ― lost, most of them resoundingly,” HuffPost reported.
Zorn ticked them off: Doug Mastriano for Pennsylvania governor, John Gibbs for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Don Bolduc for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, Robert Burns for New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, Dan Cox for Maryland governor and Bailey in Illinois. If Kari Lake loses her gubernatorial bid in Arizona, that makes seven.
The GOP and some Democrats are outraged by the meddling in GOP primaries. The good government types are tut-tutting, arguing it undermines democracy; it’s dirty politics.
I recently spoke to the Fortnightly of Chicago, a savvy and civically engaged women’s club that meets at a mansion on Chicago’s Gold Coast.
Pritzker paved the way to his big win by buying the Bailey nomination, I told the crowd of about 120 women. I asked, “How many of you think that was dirty politics or undemocratic? Meddling?”
Fewer than half raised their hands. “The Republicans have done it, I’m sure,” one woman declared. “So have the Russians, and everybody else,” another offered.
“When they go low, we go high” was former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous advice about American politics.
This year, Democrats were going for the win.
Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at LauraLauraWashington@gmail.com.
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November 14, 2022 at 07:45AM