With the economy in the tank, inflation soaring, and President Joe Biden unpopular, many pundits expected a Republican red wave in the US midterms. But it’s clear that this did not materialise, with Democrats outperforming pollsters’ expectations.

Democrats are likely to lose control of the House. Control of the Senate may go down to a runoff in Georgia. But regardless of the final count, Democrats will claim this as a victory. Republicans are now questioning whether Donald Trump has lost his political mojo; this will strengthen the hand of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is likely to run for the Republican ticket in 2024 after a thumping win.

An untold story of the midterms, though, is the irresponsible political tactics deployed by the Democrats. In Republican primaries around the country, Democrats poured tens of millions of dollars into supporting pro-MAGA, Trump-aligned candidates over more moderate, establishment conservatives, hoping that the extreme views of Trump’s allies would give Democratic candidates a better chance.

Consider Pennsylvania, a critical swing state that will help decide the presidency in 2024. Democrats won the governorship against a self-claimed “ultra-MAGA” candidate, Doug Mastriano, who has denied the 2020 election results and attended the January 6 attack on the Capitol. But Democrats spent more supporting Mastriano in the Republican primary than Mastriano himself.

While Mastriano lost, along with most other Democratic-backed Republican extremists, Trump allies haven’t all had a bad night. Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor in Arizona and another election denier, may yet triumph with the count on a razor’s edge. She has already questioned the integrity of the midterm results. It was the Democrats who launched email campaigns against Lake’s more moderate opponent during the primary.

Supporting those who promote baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged could have grave implications for America’s democracy and the Republican Party as a whole. To understand why, remember that Trump’s attempts to subvert democracy and overturn the 2020 election failed, in part, because principled Republicans validated election results and respected the views of voters.

These midterms were one of the last chances to put the political infrastructure in place to stop Trump’s return. Success of Trump’s allies in the midterms may have diminished the checks and balances that prevent a rogue president attempting to steal an election, with severe implications for the 2024 and 2028 elections, if Trump chose to run.

Democrats rolled the dice and won. But what would have happened if they lost?

Supporting extremist Republicans is short-sighted. A Trump-aligned Republican Party increases division in Washington, shackles bipartisanship on important reform, and weakens the credibility of the US on the international stage. This spells bad news for allies such as Australia.

It doesn’t matter that many extremist MAGA candidates did not win this time around; what matters is that they could have. This was a very real risk. And it was only heightened by the Democrats’ unconscionable gamble, which prioritised party gain over political stability.

The “success” of Democrat tactics raises the prospect that pro-Trump election deniers will benefit from Democratic money again. This would be a mistake: Georgia’s election of Marjorie Taylor Greene – who claims the 2020 election was rigged and supports antisemitic conspiracy theories – is a warning shot of what may be to come for the party of Abraham Lincoln.

The Democratic Party and its leaders have a moral responsibility to take the long view in supporting a strong and vibrant liberal democracy. Funding election deniers fails this test. Yes, it may result in short-term wins. But it also risks driving the Republican Party further to the right and undermines the efforts of moderate voices trying to bring reason to the Grand Old Party.

In the words of Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman who opposed the practice, “We lose on every level … We lose the moral ground on democracy as an issue, we lose trust in democracy, and we side with Trump in a primary. This is bad tactics, terrible strategy, and corrosive to our democracy.”

Let’s hope that wise heads like Roemer prevail and Democrats see the error in their ways. Protecting America’s democracy is more important than Democrats winning elections.

There’s no doubt that the midterms harmed Trump’s standing. Moderate Republicans deserve a fair fight against his election-denying acolytes in the 2024 primaries. With luck, the GOP will drift back to the centre. This would benefit us all.

This article has been republished from the Sydney Morning Herald with permission.

Daniel D’Hotman

Daniel D’Hotman is an Australian Rhodes Scholar completing his PhD in Ethics at Oxford.