Republicans hoped former President Trump wouldn’t announce he was running for president in 2024 until after the November midterms.
But the search of his Mar-a-Lago home by the FBI in early August followed by wails of protest by Trump and his loyalists propelled the former president back into the spotlight as though he did announce his candidacy.
Congressional Republicans wanted Trump to hold off until after the midterms so they could hone their message with voters on crime, the economy, gas prices, inflation, the border and President Biden. Keeping Trump at bay would give GOPers time and space to curate those topics.
But everyone in politics spent most of August focused on the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, various legal filings, debates about classified material and possible legal jeopardy for those close to former President Trump and maybe Trump himself.
When it came to defending Trump, some Congressional Republicans doused the political landscape with petrol over the past few weeks, lashing out at the FBI, the Justice Department, Attorney General Merrick Garland and even Biden.
There’s talk of “politicization.” And certainly such incendiary talk energizes some Republican voters, especially those who hold a special allegiance to the former president. That factor will prod some voters to get to the polls, even though former President Trump isn’t on the ballot this fall.
In a way, the events of the past month served as the equivalent of a ghost 2024 announcement from Trump.
Some Republicans don’t want that at all. Others do. And that’s the balancing act for the GOP.
“Most Republicans, including me, believe when it comes to Trump, there is no law. It’s all about getting him,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox.
Graham wasn’t finished.
“If there’s a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the (Hillary) Clinton debacle,” said Graham, “there’ll be riots in the streets.”
The legal issues churning around former President Trump are distracting Republicans from focusing on the economy and President Biden. Falling fuel prices have weakened some Republican arguments.
Anytime you see Republicans running to the TV studio to discuss Mar-a-Lago, the FBI or alleged political and judicial abuse, it means they’re not trained on bread and butter issues. That could hurt the GOP this fall.
This is the political struggle for Republicans.
No one else in the party electrifies core GOPers like former President Trump. But Trump’s increasing toxicity makes it hard for the party to reach disaffected Democrats, independents or even more conventional “Reagan-esque” Republicans who abhor the conduct of the 45th president.
That’s why Democrats are now carefully calibrating what they say about Trump. Using the former president as a foil didn’t work in off-year elections in 2021 in Virginia and elsewhere. But is it worth discussion now?
Democrats will take their cues from the top.
President Biden has gone right after Trump on multiple occasions of late.
“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” the president said. “For a long time, we’ve reassured ourselves that American democracy is guaranteed. But it is not.”
The president accused some Republicans of “semi-fascism” in their embrace of former President Trump. He’s characterized some Republicans as “a threat to our very democracy,” adding that they “embrace political violence.” The president suggested some Republicans are now election deniers who want to thwart voters who don’t agree with them.
Biden traveled to Capitol Hill on the one-year anniversary of the riot to speak in Statuary Hall. In that speech, the president described how “rioters menaced these halls”
Now President Biden is more aggressive when it comes to Trump.
“For God’s sake, whose side are you on?” the president asked. “You’re either on the side of the mob or on the side of police. You can’t be pro-law enforcement (and) pro-insurrection. You can’t be a party of law and order and call the people who attacked the police on Jan. 6 ‘patriots.’”
It’s arguments like that that may resonate with disaffected Republicans, independents and even crossover Democrats — all of whom have grown tired of the tornado of antics and controversies which perpetually swirl around the former president.
Republicans said Biden’s rhetoric reminded them of something they heard before about Trump loyalists.
“That sounds like a long-winded description and definition of what Secretary Clinton called deplorable,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said on Fox.
But there are problems for Democrats if they push issues about the former President, Jan. 6 and election deniers to the forefront, too.
Democrats may reap some residual political benefits making the election about Trump. And, a retread of “Biden versus Trump” in the midterms works in the Democrats’ favor.
But former President Trump siphons away every cubic centimeter of news oxygen. The more Democrats talk about Trump, the more they aren’t discussing a string of what they characterize as major legislative wins. The infrastructure law. The health, tax and climate law. The first major piece of firearms legislation in almost 30 years. The law to bolster the semiconductor and chip industry in the United States.
Democrats have struggled to message all of their political victories for a while now. That’s given Republicans the opportunity to define Democrats. You’ve heard the catch phrases. Socialist. Big spenders. Defund the police. Insecure border.
But what this means for both parties is that former President Trump remains the most consequential figure in American politics right now. It’s extraordinary that any former president could maintain that status nearly two years after leaving office — to say nothing of the riot and two Senate impeachment trials.
Neither side can quit Trump.
This is why even though former President Trump isn’t on the ballot, he’s de facto on the ballot. It’s a shadow ballot.
And while Republicans appear to have delayed the potential for Trump to announce his presidential bid until after the midterms, the news cycle about Mar-a-Lago and classified documents eclipses anything else. Former President Trump is “in the news” just as though he announced a third candidacy for the White House. So, the very scenario Republicans hoped to avoid came to fruition anyway.
Either way, Republicans are likely still on track to gain control of the House this fall, albeit by a smaller margin than thought a few months ago. The Senate is a coin flip.
But the message so far isn’t about gas prices and the border. The message so far isn’t about climate or health care or firearms. Or, to some degree, even abortion.
The message is about Trump — and his role as the lead messenger in American politics.