while trump approval ratings may be falling and republican voters tell pollsters they are willing to look elsewhere, a series of recent events has kept the party obsessed with him and the scandals that defined his time and office. Washington DC and the largest conservative news outlet have spent days reliving the January 6 riots. And the specter of a Trump impeachment in New York heralds an early primary season devoted to relitigating his record.
“There is no question that he is the giant in the middle of the room, and other people will define themselves in comparison to him,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster.
In recent days, Trump said he will «absolutely» stay in the race if he is accused and that it would probably “improve my numbers”. Far from distancing himself from the January 6 Capitol riots, a general election liability with independent Republicans and pro-democracy, Trump has suggested pardoning some of those charged on January 6 and recently. collaborated on a song with some of them. More traditionalist Republicans cringed at that, and again when Fox’s Tucker Carlson aired footage downplaying the violence on Capitol Hill.
“Reliving the worst moment of the Trump presidency is probably not exactly what the doctor ordered for 2024,” Ayres said.
For any other presidential candidate or any low-voting Republican next year, said a Republican strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about campaign dynamics, the «big risk» is that «we have to talk about the January 6 in the electoral campaign. ”
«God, I don’t want to be on this side of that issue,» he said.
The primary was always going to be, first and foremost, about the former president, who remains, despite his weaknesses, the favorite in the 2024 field. Trump campaign, it seemed that he could not singularly set the terms of the debate. It was time for anew generationHaley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said as she launched her campaign. Republicans, said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a potential candidate, would not choose «yesterday’s leadership.»
The problem for the Republicans is that Trump is making it impossible to run anything other than yesterday’s campaign.
In Washington, Carlson’s new litigation over the January 6 riots at the Capitol on Fox News forced Republicans to answer a new set of questions about an event they had been eager to forget, reminiscent of Trump’s tweets that they were forced, clumsily, to respond throughout their tenure. It sparked debates within the party about whether the insurrection had, in fact, been essentially peaceful and led to accusations that those in the party who called it a dark day were ideological smashers.
Then came the news that Trump had been invited to testify before a New York grand jury investigating his involvement in secret payments during the 2016 campaign, raising the possibility of an explosive criminal case that would once again keep Trump as a Central litmus test for the party: Would fellow Republicans condemn the prosecution or turn on the former president?
“Ignore it, divert it all you want,” said Mike Noble, head of research and managing partner at Arizona-based survey firm OH Predictive Insights. “This is, 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 nascent campaign. In announcing last week that he would not run for president, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pointed to Trump, saying he feared a «backup» of low-polling candidates that would prevent an alternative candidate from «emerging.»
Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy biotech businessman and unlikely candidate, took the opposite tack and waded right into Trump’s orbit. in the middle of the week, was calling for «due process» for those arrested in the January 6 riots.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence delivered his biggest jab at Trump yet, telling a crowd at the Gridiron dinner on Saturday that «history will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6th.»
Even DeSantis, who has largely evaded the former president, seems unlikely to avoid him for long. His visit to Iowa on Friday came with Trump right on his shoulder, and Trump is set to follow DeSantis to the nation’s first state caucus 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 part of his administration.
“It seems like the candidates are trying to stop talking about Trump, but they keep getting drawn in,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “All of that is good for Trump for two reasons. One, he keeps it relevant, and two, I think that’s what he wants. He wants to be the center of attention.
Trump is likely to stay there, too, as multi-candidate events ramp up this spring, followed by debates in which Republicans will be pressured to comment on the riots and other elements of his tenure.
The lanes in the GOP primary are already narrowing in ways that allude to Trump’s strength, and Hogan’s announcement serves as a tacit acknowledgment of the lack of space for any outspoken critic of Trump. Former Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who became the GOP’s most prominent Trump opponent, has took an appointment as a practicum professor at the University of Virginia. Former Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial, became president … of the University of Florida.
In the Republican primary, said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, “it will be Trump, or he will be the most Trumpian son of a bitch there is.”
«That,» he added, «is what this base wants.»
In a normal re-election year for a sitting president, the opposition party would spend its primaries at least in part focused on the incumbent, setting up a referendum on President Joe Biden in the fall. But as happened in the 2022 midterms and, before that, in his own failed re-election campaign, the primary is playing out like a referendum instead of Trump. Noble called it «the sequel, … 100 percent» on Trump. And his opponents, it seems, can do very little about it.
“The press likes it. He is the story, he is the conflict,” said Beth Miller, a longtime Republican strategist. «How come you don’t keep writing about it, since all those topics are still at the forefront?»
It’s possible, if DeSantis or some other Republican makes the primary competitive, the singular focus on Trump will fade. Significant differences may arise between candidates on immigration, Social Security, or any number of other issues.
It’s also possible that another candidate could enter, appealing to what former New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman called voters «who haven’t been satisfied, who have gone over to the independent column» and who «might come back if see a Republican they want.» thought was viable and sane and a little more to the center.”
However, when asked if any names came to mind, he said: «No, not right now.»