Democrats look to wreak havoc in GOP primaries

 In Politics

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Democrats are looking to revive a little Todd Akin magic in 2018.

With Republican Senate primaries from West Virginia to Montana promising to pit Trump-inspired insurgents against more mainstream candidates, Democrats are considering ways to step in and wreak some havoc. The idea: Elevate the GOP’s most extreme option in each race, easing Democrats’ path to victory in a range of states tilted against them.

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At its most aggressive, the tactic could be a sequel to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2012 campaign against then-GOP Rep. Akin in Missouri. She actively intevened in the Republican primary with ads designed to boost the conservative Akin to the front of the pack. Once he became the nominee, a series of gaffes — led by his “legitimate rape” comment — and hard-line positions unraveled his campaign.

Possibilities abound to revive the strategy next year, Democrats say. They’re exploring states including Arizona, where Kelli Ward, a challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake, said Sen. John McCain should vacate his seat “as quickly as possible” after his brain cancer diagnosis. They’re looking at Nevada, where frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian — who once mused about “pretend[ing] we’re black,” referring to his African-American opponent — is running against Sen. Dean Heller.

And they’re eyeing Ohio, where Josh Mandel — the state treasurer and two-time challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown — this summer called the Anti-Defamation League “a partisan witch-hunt group” while affirming his support for alt-right bloggers and conspiracy theorists Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec.

Though they did not intervene in Alabama’s recent GOP Senate primary, national Democrats are now monitoring the Republican nominee in the state’s general election. Twice-ousted former state supreme court chief justice Roy Moore has called Native Americans and Asian Americans “reds and yellows,” while repeatedly claiming parts of the United States are under Shariah law. Those are just a few of his many controversial statements and actions.

Despite the heavy conservative tilt of Alabama, Democrats are looking to the state for, at least, hints for how to further divide Republicans next year — or, at best, a shocking upset.

“What happened [with Akin] has been multiplied [in Alabama], by both the character of this candidate and the positions he’s taken, but also by the fractures in the Republican Party — which are being fought much more publicly — and the extraordinary unpopularity of Mitch McConnell,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, referring to the Senate majority leader who became a central punching bag in Moore’s primary bid.

At the Democrats’ Senate campaign headquarters in Washington and their local offices in the states, operatives have started compiling files of the GOP hopefuls’ more outrageous statements and positions, while combing through the daily news clips for hints of further themes to pursue against them. Many of the primary contests are still shaping up, so for now the preparation is preliminary. There’s also the challenge for Democrats of figuring out whether traditional controversies still spark outrage in the age of Donald Trump.

There are other long-shot states besides Alabama on the Democrats’ target list. Among them are Mississippi and Tennessee, where former Trump chief strategist and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon is threatening to run insurgent candidates against the GOP establishment’s picks.

They’re also considering how to be effective in races where incumbent Democrats are already facing a phalanx of Republicans. They include Indiana, Montana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as West Virginia, where Attorney General Patrick Morrisey projected his move toward Trump-style anti-establishment politics by going so far as to distribute a press release when Bannon praised him late last month.

While it’s not unusual for a party to monitor opposition primaries, rarely do so many prominent contests pop up simultaneously, and rarely do parties or candidates consider meddling across the aisle. It can be a risky endeavor: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign team was eager to run against Trump, believing him to be a historically weak candidate, so it tried elevating his status during the presidential primary by speaking out against him vocally and frequently for months during his messy primary.

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