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Ads from Democratic groups boost the Republican candidates that may be easier to beat

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's an unusual trend in political ads in this year's primary season. Democratic groups are running ads in hopes of boosting far-right candidates. The goal, as the theory goes, is to wind up with a Republican nominee who would be easier to beat come November. The latest such case is in a congressional primary in West Michigan. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: First-term GOP Congressman Peter Meijer comes from a well-known Michigan family with deep ties to the community. He has a business background and military experience, serving in Iraq. But there's also this on his resume. He is one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump in January of 2021. Because of that vote, he has a primary challenger - former Trump administration official John Gibbs. Gibbs has little name recognition, but suddenly he is the subject of an ad on TV being funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: John Gibbs is too conservative for West Michigan. Handpicked by Trump to run for Congress, Gibbs called Trump the greatest president.

GONYEA: But for an ad that purports to be an attack, its tone is pretty mild - no ominous music or scary sound effects. The announcer is downright pleasant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gibbs has promised to push that same conservative agenda in Congress - a hard line against immigrants at the border and so-called patriotic education.

GONYEA: Asked about the ad, the DCCC had no comment. Political analysts say the real purpose is to build up Gibbs - to say things Trump supporters want to hear and to give this challenger a boost in the primary over the more moderate Meijer. The Michigan race is a toss-up congressional district, but ads like these, paid for by Democratic groups, have been seen around the country this year in Pennsylvania, Maryland, California and elsewhere, raising the profile of hard-core pro-Trump candidates. Political scientist Burwood Yost is at Franklin and Marshall College.

BERWOOD YOST: That's the bet they're making - that you can lift up a candidate who would be appealing to primary voters but would be too extreme for general election voters, and that makes a Democrat's path to election easier.

GONYEA: Congressman Meijer's campaign has called out such tactics as playing political games. One prominent Republican, Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who also voted to impeach Trump and who's a member of the January 6 committee, is very critical of such attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEW DAY")

ADAM KINZINGER: I think it's disgusting.

GONYEA: And he said on CNN to look for this to backfire in some races.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEW DAY")

KINZINGER: Don't come to me after having spent money supporting an election denier in a primary, and then come to me and say, where are all the good Republicans?

GONYEA: Michigan's primary is scheduled for next Tuesday. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.