The risky strategy Democrats are using to win elections

Surreptitiously backing an extremist opponent could make you look like the more appealing candidate. Or it could backfire.

In Maryland, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arizona, and Illinois, Democrats have used — or are currently using — what's known as the "pied piper" strategy, boosting extreme Republican primary candidates who will be easier to beat in November. It might pay off. It also might backfire spectacularly. Here's everything you need to know:

What's a "pied piper" strategy?

The strategy takes its name from the medieval German legend about a mysterious piper who arrives in the town of Hamelin, which is suffering from a plague spread by rats. In a common telling of the story, the piper offers to solve the problem in exchange for payment; Hamelin's mayor agrees. The piper plays his magic pipe, luring the rats into the river, where they all drown. When the mayor refuses to pay up, the piper does the same to the town's children.

In politics, a "pied piper" candidate plays a tune for his party's base, and voters dutifully follow him off a cliff.

How do campaigns leverage pied piper candidates?

Let's say you're a Senate candidate in a purple state who's running unopposed for your party's nomination. You've got money to burn and time on your hands. Meanwhile, the other party's primary has devolved into a knife fight between A, the electable moderate, and B, the fire-breathing extremist. A is a real threat, but facing B would be a dream come true; Independents can't stand B. Members from every wing of your party will show up in force just to keep B out of office. You'll win in a landslide.

So you decide to give B a little boost. You can't write him a check. He'd never accept it. You can't directly coordinate with his campaign. That's illegal. You also can't run an ad that says, "Vote for B so I can crush him in November." That's a little too on the nose. So, you do the next best thing. You run an "attack" ad against B that makes him sound irresistible to his party's base. "Don't vote for B," the TV warns. "B supports X and Y!" — the subtext being that X and Y are very bad policies. "But wait," the likely primary voter thinks. "I also support X and Y. Maybe I should vote for B."

B soars in the polls. B beats A. You've created a monster, but unlike that fool Dr. Victor, you made your Frankenstein about 18 inches tall. You can nudge him over with your toe and get back to sipping Mai Tais on Capitol Hill. Those fools! If they'd just voted for A, he'd be 8 points ahead of you by now. Instead, they followed B's sweet, sweet pipe tunes straight to their (electoral) demise.

But wait. Your lead starts to disappear. Your attacks on B aren't sticking. He trounces you in the debate. He might win. This can't be happening! B can't be a senator! He's crazy! He'll destroy everything! Oh God! What have you done?

Has this actually happened?

Yes — this week in fact. On Tuesday, Trump-backed state Del. Dan Cox (R) defeated former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schultz (R), the handpicked successor of moderate Gov. Larry Hogan (R), by a 56-40 margin. Maryland is a blue state, but Hogan managed to remain highly popular by governing as a pro-business social moderate. Schultz would have carried on that legacy — so Democrats decided to back Cox. The Democratic Governors Association spent more than a million dollars on an ad titled "Meet Dan," which portrayed Cox as a close ally of Trump with hardline conservative views on abortion and gun rights. This ad predictably boosted Cox's poll numbers.

Of course, the Democrats didn't come right out and say what they were doing. Sam Newton, the deputy communications director for the DGA, said "given Cox's frontrunner status and radical MAGA stances, we are starting the general election early and wasting no time to hold him accountable." This didn't fool anyone. Politico described the Maryland gubernatorial primary as "just the latest race where Democratic campaigns and committees have moved to boost the further-right candidate."

Schultz was livid. In a late June press conference, she urged Maryland Republican voters not to self-sabotage by dancing to the Democrats' tune. "The math is easy: spend a million now, and save about five million by not having to face me in the general election," she told reporters. In a separate interview, she said Democrats were "trying to boost Dan because they know I can beat a Democrat."

Of course, it remains to be seen if the Democrats can indeed pull off a victory against Cox in November, though The New York Times calls him "a heavy underdog in the general election against the candidate who prevails in Maryland's Democratic primary."

Where else have Democrats used the "pied piper" strategy during the 2022 midterms?

In Illinois, billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker — who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination — spent nearly $33 million attacking Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin, the first Black mayor of suburban Aurora, Illinois. Ivin presented a serious threat. State Sen. Darren Baily (R), who won the June 28 primary, did not.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats helped push Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano — one of the most vocal proponents of former President Donald Trump's stolen election claims — over the finish line. Now, they're afraid he might actually win. Three polls conducted last month showed Mastriano trailing Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro by between three and four points — well within the margin of error. "The higher the gas prices go, the more electable Mastriano is," the chair of the Cambria County Republican Party told Politico.

Democrats spent $2.5 million in Colorado to boost state Rep. Ron Hanks (R) in the state's GOP Senate primary. "Hanks was rated one of the most conservative members in the state House. He says Joe Biden's election was a fraud. Hanks wants to ban all abortions," one Democratic ad proclaimed. These attacks weren't meant to appall liberals; they were meant to entice conservatives. This time, the strategy failed, and Hanks lost the primary to pro-choice Republican Joe O'Dea.

In Arizona's primaries, which are scheduled for Aug. 2, Democrats are working to elevate former television news anchor Kari Lake, who won Trump's endorsement but saw her lead in the polls slipping as the state's GOP establishment threw its support behind lawyer Karrin Taylor Robson, who is backed by term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and former Vice President Mike Pence. A poll conducted earlier this month by the Phoenix-based public affairs firm HighGround found Lake leading Robson 39-35 — within the 4.9 percent error margin — with 21 percent of voters still undecided.

Has this strategy been tried before?

Yes. A 2015 memo written by Hillary Clinton's campaign staff urged the DNC to "elevate" extreme "Pied Piper" candidates in the Republican primaries, specifically Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and eventual winner Donald Trump. Democrats, the memo read, should work to position those candidates as "leaders of the pack" and "tell the press to [take] them seriously." This strategy would ideally "[f]orce all Republican candidates" to adopt "extreme conservative positions" and prevent the eventual GOP nominee from making "inroads to our coalition or independents."

We all know how that turned out.

Another prominent example is the 2012 Senate race between Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) and Rep. Todd Akin (R). In a 2015 Politico essay, McCaskill explained that she commissioned a poll on the GOP primary. The pollsters asked likely voters which candidate they preferred, then explained the candidates' views and messaging and asked them again. In the first round, Akin was trailing the leader by over 20 points. In the second, he jumped to first place.

"Akin's narrative could make him the winner among the people most likely to vote in the Republican primary—and maybe, just maybe, a loser among moderate Missourians," McCaskill wrote. So, she decided to help Akin get his message out. She used reverse psychology, airing an ad that accused Akin of being "too conservative."

It worked. McCaskill beat Akin 55-40. To celebrate, she shotgunned a beer for the first time in her life.

One interpretation is that McCaskill pulled off a masterstroke. Another is that she got lucky. Polling conducted the summer before the election showed Akin beating McCaskill by double digits. It was only after a massive gaffe — Akin incorrectly claimed that "the female body has ways" of naturally avoiding pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" — that McCaskill took the lead.


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