Are the Democrats playing rope-a-dope tricks against Republicans this election cycle? You bet! It’s not a new gimmick, either, just one that sits in that box on the shelf labeled “for use in desperate times only.”

Twelve years ago, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looked like he was on the ropes in his final election campaign in Nevada. Yet somehow he clenched victory from the jaws of defeat. At the time, I was working on a foreign project with Reid’s pollster and asked him how he pulled it off. With a wry smile, he answered, “We chose our opponent, that’s how.”

Reid’s opponent, Sharon Angle, was the furthest right of her competitors for the Republican nomination. So much so, she was out of step with the state. Angle enjoyed a 10-point lead over Reid coming out of the primary, but within a month managed to fall seven points behind him in what is perhaps the biggest swing in the history of elections to the U.S. Senate. Though Reid, a one-time amateur boxer, might have been a dead-man-walking going into the election, an unelectable opponent saved him.

In Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Illinois and Arizona, Democrats have spent tens of millions of dollars this cycle supporting the most extreme Republicans vying in various primary races. Why? In Maryland, Dan Cox, who was backed by both Trump and Democrat-aligned groups, won Tuesday’s primary for the GOP nod to try and succeed moderate Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Why are Dems backing the very far-right candidates they claim threaten democracy today?

Ask former Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who told NPR last month “this has to be done very carefully,” but it works. In 2012, she spent $1.7 million boosting the conservative credentials of Rep. Todd Akin, who made himself famous talking about cases of “legitimate rape” in a teaching moment for all aging white males seeking elective office in America.

“There were three viable candidates and Todd Akin was kind of the weirdest one,” McCaskill said. “I knew he might say some weird things if he were nominated. And he had less money, so we took a poll and figured out what Republican voters would really like about him.”

Sneaky huh? It’s not illegal, and thanks to campaign finance reporting requirements we can even watch it happening. But it is pretty cynical, and to many, tricks like these diminish the whole political process. Yet sometimes it backfires.

As Washington Examiner senior editor David Mark pointed out last weekend, in 1966 advisors to California Gov. Pat Brown were looking for the most conservative Republican to run against and ended up boosting actor Ronald Reagan, who went on to beat Brown, and years later redefine the GOP.

Anyone who has seen the photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton having a laugh with Donald and Melania Trump can’t help wondering if there was something funky going on in the 2016 Republican nominating process. Better-qualified contenders like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and even Ted Cruz were all beating Hillary Clinton in polling head-to-head match-ups. The only Republican polling at the time suggested she could beat was goofball Donald Trump who, like McCaskill has said four years earlier, had a real tendency to say (and tweet) “weird things.”

Also, the Democrats aren’t the only ones who play dirty tricks. After all, the Watergate break-in was motivated by an effort within the Nixon camp to find out which Democrat would be the looniest, and thus most beatable in the general election of 1972.

Going into November, polling suggests the wind is at Republicans’ backs. President Biden’s low approval ratings weigh like an anchor on the generic ticket, leading to a demoralized base of support. It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade will undercut their advantage or not. This could explain why we are seeing more instances of Democrats employing the rope-a-dope strategy right now.

When you are confident about the hand you’re playing, there is little need to stack the deck. Bernie Sanders supporters were rightfully disgusted by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s knee-capping efforts on behalf of Clinton six years ago. Does the desperation of the present moment make Democrats more tolerant of skullduggery today?

We shall see.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.