While Trump’s approval ratings may drop and Republican voters tell pollsters they’re ready to look elsewhere, a series of recent developments have kept the party obsessed with him and the scandals that defined his time and his desk. Washington DC and the mainstream conservative media spent days reliving the January 6 riot. And the specter of an indictment from Trump in New York suggests a start to the primary season spent reviving his case.
“There’s no question he’s the giant in the middle of the room, and other people will define themselves by him,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster.
In recent days, Trump has said he would “absolutely” stay in the running if indicted and that would “probably improve my numbers.” Far from straying from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — a broad campaign liability with independents and pro-democracy Republicans — Trump has suggested pardoning some Jan. 6 defendants and recently collaborated on a song with some of between them. More traditional Republicans grimaced at this — and again when Fox’s Tucker Carlson aired footage downplaying the violence on Capitol Hill.
“Re-living the worst moment of the Trump presidency probably isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for 2024,” Ayres said.
For any other presidential candidate or any Republican candidate on the decline next year, said a Republican strategist who granted anonymity to candidly discuss campaign dynamics, the “tremendous risk” is that “we have to talking about January 6 during the election campaign”. ”
“God, I don’t want to be on this side of this issue,” he said.
The primary was always going to be about, first and foremost, the former president – who remains, despite his weaknesses, the frontrunner in the 2024 pack. , it appeared that he might not individually set the terms of the debate. It was time for anew generationsaid Haley, the former UN ambassador, when she launched her campaign. Republicans, said New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu – a potential candidate – would not choose “yesterday’s leadership”.
The problem for Republicans is that Trump is making it impossible to run anything other than yesterday’s campaign.
In Washington, Carlson’s questioning of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on Fox News forced Republicans to answer new batteries of questions about an event they were eager to forget – reminiscent of Trump’s tweets that they had been clumsily forced to respond throughout his tenure. This sparked debates within the party over whether the insurgency had, in fact, been mostly peaceful, and led to accusations that those in the party who called it a dark day were ideological squishes.
Then came the news that Trump had been asked to testify before a New York grand jury investigating his involvement in silent money payments during the 2016 campaign, raising the prospect of an explosive criminal case that would once again keep Trump as a central litmus test for the party: Would other Republicans decry the accusation or turn on the former president?
“Ignore it, deflect it all you want,” said Mike Noble, chief research officer and managing partner of Arizona-based polling firm OH Predictive Insights. “It will be, right now, the Trump show… The oxygen will just be sucked out of the room focusing on Trump.”
The effects were already evident in the fledgling campaign. In announcing last week that he would not run for president, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pointed the finger at Trump, saying he feared a “stack” of low-vote candidates preventing a alternative candidate to “stand up”.
Vivek Ramaswamy – the wealthy biotech entrepreneur and longtime candidate – went the other way, plunging straight into Trump’s orbit. In the middle of the week, he called for ‘due process’ for those arrested during the January 6 riot.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, made his biggest swing at Trump, telling a crowd at the Gridiron dinner on Saturday that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6.”
Even DeSantis, who largely avoided the former president, seems unlikely to avoid him for long. His Friday visit to Iowa came with Trump just over his shoulder, with Trump set to follow DeSantis to the nation’s first caucus state on Monday.
And then there are the potential candidates who, by virtue of their resumes, are already inextricably linked to Trump. Haley, Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were all in his administration.
“It feels like the candidates are trying not to talk about Trump but keep getting pulled out,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “It’s all good for Trump for two reasons. One, it keeps him relevant, and two, I think that’s what he wants. He wants to be the center of attention.
Trump will likely stay there, too, as multi-candidate events resume this spring — followed by debates in which Republicans will be pressed to comment on the riot and other elements of his term.
Already, the GOP primary tracks are tightening in a way that nods to Trump’s strength, with Hogan’s announcement serving as a tacit acknowledgment of the lack of room for any outspoken critic of Trump. Former Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who became Trump’s most prominent GOP antagonist, has been named a professor of practice at the University of Virginia. Former Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, became president … of the University of Florida.
In the GOP primary, said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh — who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination — “It’ll be Trump, or it’ll be the most Trumpiest son of a bitch out there. -down.”
“That’s what this base wants,” he added.
In a normal re-election year for a sitting president, the opposition party would spend its primary at least partly focused on the incumbent – holding a referendum on President Joe Biden in the fall. But since it was midterm in 2022 and, before that — in his own failed re-election campaign — the primary is unfolding more like a referendum on Trump. Noble called it “the sequel, … 100%” on Trump. And his opponents, it seems, can’t do much about it.
“The press appreciates it. He’s the story, he’s the conflict,” said Beth Miller, a longtime Republican strategist. “How do you not continue to write about him, since all these issues are still front and center.”
It’s possible, if DeSantis or another Republican makes the primary competitive, that the singular focus on Trump will fade. Significant differences may arise between applicants on immigration, social security, or a number of other issues.
It’s also possible that another candidate will come in, appealing to what former New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman called voters “who were dissatisfied, who switched to the independent column” and who ” could come back if they saw a Republican that they thought was viable and healthy and a little more central.
When asked if any names came to mind, however, she replied, “No, not at the moment.”