Add Republican operatives to the list of strong Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic primary, along with progressive activists and young voters.

A super-PAC founded by Republican billionaire Joe Ricketts is making its first foray into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, spending $600,000 on a television ad in Iowa calling Sanders "too liberal," according to the New York Times.

The ad then spotlights two of the policies that have helped fuel his rise in the Democratic primary—his calls for "completely free" college education and more taxes on Wall Street and the "super-rich."

"It's exactly the same thing we did with Todd Akin," said Caitlin Legacki, who served as communications director to Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill's during her successful campaign in 2012. "They're clearly trying to use the exact same playbook."

Four years ago, McCaskill spent nearly $1 million in TV ads calling Akin "too conservative" in an effort to promote him, rather than his two opponents. He won the primary, then McCaskill trounced him on Election Day. 

"More than anything that should be a concern for Democrats, because you don't make those kinds of investments in support of a candidate from another party unless you believe there's a good reason for it," Legacki added.

YouTube: Too Liberal

In addition, the Republican National Committee and outside pro-GOP groups like American Crossroads and America Rising are aiming their arrows exclusively at Clinton, and doing so strategically to weaken her with Democratic primary voters, such as by highlighting her ties to Wall Street.

The escalated efforts represent a broad consensus among Republican strategists that they would rather face Sanders in a general election. And if he loses, they at least succeed in putting her on the back foot.

"A prolonged primary against Sanders will only pull Clinton even further to the left and prevent her from laying the groundwork for the general election," Sean Spicer, the chief strategist and spokesman for the RNC, wrote in a memo that was widely distributed on Wednesday. He added, "Anything but a resounding Iowa win is a loss for Clinton."

The political manipulation strategy of "picking your opponent" is not new, but what's unique is the unabashed character of the current Republican efforts.

Prior to the new efforts, an ad in Iowa by American Crossroads painted Clinton as too cozy with Wall Street, bolstering a line of attack by Sanders. At the last Democratic debate, the RNC made the unusual move of sending reporters real-time emails defending him from Clinton's attacks. Spicer quipped on Twitter, regarding Sanders, "come on we are trying to help u."

The Clinton campaign has rebuked an argument Sanders is actively making, citing some recent polls, that he'd be a stronger general  election candidate than his rival.

"While Senator Sanders tries to make a case on electability based on meaningless polls, Republicans and their super PACs have made clear the candidate they’re actually afraid to face," said Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri.

Sanders, meanwhile, portrayed the latest ad as an attempt to harm, not help him.

"The powers that be—Wall Street, whose greed and recklessness and illegal behavior brought this country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression—they have endless supplies of money. Endless," he said at a recent town hall in Des Moines, Iowa. "In fact somebody on Wall Street now I think just announced he's gonna spend $600,000 in ads against me here in Iowa this week. Six hundred thousand bucks! From one guy."

The strategy behind the Akin ads in 2012 had little to do with poll numbers at the time, Legacki said, but rather their conclusion that Akin's rhetoric and record made him the most toxic of her three potential GOP opponents with a general electorate. The campaign wanted to be subtle about it, fearing it would backfire if voters knew they were being manipulated. They announced three ads totaling $1 million about each candidate, while sneakily putting nearly all of that money behind the Akin ad.

"It was crazy enough to work," Legacki said, but noted one difference between the 2012 effort and now. "People caught onto this immediately, whereas in 2012 fewer people were paying attention so we were able to fly under the radar. Once the media and the Republicans started calling us out for it that foundation had been set."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE