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The GOP’s Silly Attempt to Boost a Liberal Candidate

They think she’ll be easier to beat in the general election—and some Democrats agree. New research suggests otherwise.

Erica Smith/United States Senate

Politico readers learned two interesting things this week.

One: A prominent political scientist is making a novel argument that elections are won not by persuading swing-voting independents but by turning out the greatest number of people already inclined to support your side. This new reality, she argues, should prompt parties to back candidates who generate enthusiasm among those who might otherwise sit home or cast a protest vote, not moderates who might be able to persuade independent voters to switch parties.

Two: Democrats are furious that a shady conservative PAC has begun spending money to boost the candidacy of a liberal candidate in the Democratic primary for North Carolina’s upcoming Senate election over the more moderate front-runner.

The political scientist is Rachel Bitecofer. You don’t have to accept her claims (which involve highly specific election forecasting) in their entirety to note that they seem at least broadly true of recent elections and explain events, such as the election of Donald Trump, that caught more traditional political scientists off guard. Hillary Clinton was brought low, in this telling, not because too many Democrats defected to Trump, but because too many of them stayed home (or had their votes suppressed) or voted third-party. The related concept of “negative partisanship”—that opposition to the other party, not loyalty to your own candidate, drives the voting of many Americans—also helps explain both why so many traditional Republicans voted for Trump and why Democrats were able to make huge gains in the 2018 midterms.

All of which brings us back to North Carolina, where Democrats are growing increasingly anxious that a more liberal candidate might edge out the one they’ve blessed.

Ads pushing a state senator named Erica Smith began airing last week. They’re funded by Faith and Power PAC, which has ties to the conservative campaign network. The spots refer to Smith as “the only proven progressive” running for the nomination, an implied knock on the front-runner, and the preferred candidate of the state party, Cal Cunningham. This is a fairly routine bit of political chicanery, though it seems like more money may be involved in this trick than usual.

Democrats are apoplectic, the story claimed. “There’s just too much money in politics,” Senator Jon Tester of Montana complained, “and they spend it on trying to get the weakest candidate to run against” incumbent Thom Tillis. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan even compared the effort to voter suppression. They all seem outraged that Republicans would try and trick people into voting against the guy Democratic consultants like the most.

“Privately,” Politico’s James Arkin and Burgess Everett wrote, “Senate Democrats have been discussing the matter internally, with one fretting that Smith is ‘unelectable’ in a general election and will be painted as a Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) acolyte.”

Cunningham—a white military veteran—is the electable candidate, in their eyes, and Smith, an apparently more liberal black woman, is too extreme for North Carolina voters.

One odd thing, which no Democrat quoted in the piece seems to know, is that Bernie Sanders himself is fairly popular, even, according to what limited polling we have, in North Carolina.

It would be one thing if Smith were a kook—a Vermin Supreme–style stunt candidate or a LaRouche follower or a libertarian—but from what little I know about her, she seems to be a very normal state politician. She is in her third term, she has been an engineer and an educator, and she lists endorsements from seemingly normal Democratic politicians on her website. I see no obvious red flags—except that, apparently, she has less access to the Democratic fundraising network than Cunningham.

Cunningham, too, seems to be an entirely conventional Democratic politician. Here’s how Politico describes his record: “Cunningham, who represented an area north of Charlotte in the state Senate for one term nearly two decades ago, is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and has the endorsement of the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], as well as a variety of North Carolina politicians and organizations.”

In other words, Cunningham is a product of the Democratic candidate-selection machine that above all values the “right” biographical details (moderates with military backgrounds are ideal), along with the ability to pass what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee calls the “Rolodex” test (candidates are asked to go through their phone contacts and add up how much money they could raise from everyone in it). Smith clearly failed the Rolodex test.

According to Bitecofer’s thesis, such tests are irrelevant to the question of which candidate the voters will accept. In fact, it doesn’t really matter which Democrat wins the nomination. Both have an equal shot at winning in November. Even if you question the premise that almost any Democrat is equally electable, in this particular case, the man the party chose, Cunningham, has an electoral history that is no better than Smith’s. He already lost a Senate primary in 2010. He honestly just looks like the kind of guy who would lose a North Carolina Senate race to a vulnerable Republican.

In short, there’s no evidence, despite the certainty of Democratic politicians and operatives, that Smith would be a worse candidate than Cunningham. Those operatives may sincerely believe otherwise. Or they may simply be laundering their own centrist politics through the imagined preferences of voters. Either way, the results would look the same.

Democrats ought to welcome the conservative intervention as a colossal waste of Republican money, if nothing else. “When Republicans are weighing in for somebody,” Senator Tim Kaine told Politico, “they’ve made the judgment that they’re worried about Cal, and they’re not worried about her.” They seem to be making exactly the same mistake the Democrats are. If Smith wins the primary, which is still an unlikely prospect, their mistake will have given her a positive introduction to North Carolina voters.

If it’s true that everyone is wrong about “candidate quality,” Democrats are posing the wrong questions. It’s more important to ask what a candidate would do once elected than it is to ask how he or she would get elected. And instead of bemoaning the GOP’s dirty tricks, liberals should encourage Republicans to make even more duplicitous primary interventions on behalf of “unelectable” candidates.