Trump plots aggressive midterm strategy seen in GOP as double-edged sword

Spread the love


Donald Trump’s political advisers are in early discussions with Republican campaigns about actively deploying him on the trail this fall, with party strategists placing a risky bet that Trump can boost GOP turnout without repelling moderates and independents who do not support the former president.

Trump plans to be more engaged in October than in September, by appearing at rallies, in robocalls and potentially on tele-town halls and at fundraisers, according to a close adviser, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential strategy. Trump’s political team has told others they want to be cooperative and helpful, focusing Trump on rural areas where he has strong support. Talks have included states across the South and Upper Midwest, among others.

But the risk is acute that his presence could distract from what the GOP has sought to make its central message of the midterms: that voters should fire Democrats who have presided over rising costs and violent crime. Trump, who is under multiple federal and state investigations, continues to falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen and has asserted without evidence that the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate was part of a political attack — inflammatory rhetoric that Democrats have sought to keep in the spotlight.

That complicated dynamic will be on display on Saturday evening as the 45th president kicks off his general election push with a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He will share the stage with Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz, who edged out a close primary win with Trump’s endorsement — but then promptly removed the former president from the top of his website as he turned to the general election. Another scheduled speaker, Jim Bognet, who is in a competitive House race against Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), also scrubbed all but two Trump references from his website, including a passage that accused the Democrats of a “witch hunt to remove President Trump” and “rig that election.”

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich responded to a question about the effect of the former president’s presence in the midterms by reiterating prior comments touting his candidates’ primary wins and his ability expand a campaign’s reach. In his written statement, he added, “Americans are hungry for the policies and leadership” of the Trump presidency, “and it’s those same policies and leadership that will fuel big Republican wins in 2022 and beyond.”

Even as some Republicans try to distance themselves from the ex-president’s comments, many GOP campaigns are showing an eagerness for him to visit. Brian Jack, a former Trump White House adviser who now works for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), has prepared polling and research on House districts, which have been part of ongoing discussions informed by data with candidates and campaign committees about where Trump should go and when, according to the close Trump adviser. The conversations have included trips to Arizona, districts on the southern border, some parts of Texas, many places in Florida, select areas of Georgia, areas in North Carolina and Ohio, and the western side of Pennsylvania.

The targeted approach reflects a shared interest in calibrating Trump’s interventions to capitalize on his enduring appeal with Republicans but avoid alienating swing voters — a dilemma a captured in recent Quinnipiac University national poll that found 72 percent of Republicans want Trump to run for president again in 2024 but 66 percent of independents don’t. Democrats are increasingly seeking to capitalize on the latter trend in the midterms, with President Biden saying in a recent prime time speech that “Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

“There is a world in where he’s helpful,” one prominent Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to assess the situation more freely. “Republicans don’t win if we don’t turn out the Trump voter. That’s just the truth. What we have to do is turn out the Trump voter while not having him turn off everyone else.”

Internal polling by both Democrats and Republicans in the district the former president is campaigning in Saturday shows both Trump and Biden, who visited the district Tuesday and was joined by Cartwright, are seen unfavorably by most voters — mirroring national trends. Cartwright, as the only House Democrat to win a Trump-leaning district in every contest since 2016, has made clear he is running on his own brand, as distinct from the national party.

They’ll be joined by the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, whose unwavering fidelity to Trump and his false claims about the 2020 election has many Republicans concerned about his chances to carry the state in November.

In states like Pennsylvania, Democrats are hoping to use concerns over Trump to swing suburban Republican voters into the Democratic column, while Republicans hope he will continue to make GOP inroads among White working-class voters who have previously voted for Democrats.

In a Thursday speech in Philadelphia, Biden framed the fall elections as a referendum on the extremism Trump has fostered in the Republican Party. Hours earlier, in Scranton, Pa., McCarthy delivered a blistering speech attempting to center the election around Biden’s performance.

“The benefit with Trump coming in to Pennsylvania is he can shore up exactly the kind of voter that Oz needs to get,” said John Brabender, a Republican consultant who has long worked in the state. “Trump has a better opportunity to move numbers than probably Oz does himself.”

Trump has so far endorsed about 15 candidates in competitive House races for the November election, including several, such as Sarah Palin in Alaska, J.R. Majewski in Ohio and Joe Kent in Washington state, where Democratic strategists have said their chances of winning the seats have increased because of the involvement of Trump and his wing of the GOP.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, are keeping their distance from Biden, whose approval rating has rebounded but remains underwater. House candidates including Jared Golden of Maine, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Cindy Axne of Iowa launched ads touting work with Republicans or against Biden. And Senate candidates John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin dodged committing to appear with Biden during stops in their states.

“We’d love to have Joe Biden here campaigning as many times as possible for Cheri Beasley and Donald Trump campaigning for Ted Budd,” said Jonathan Felts, an adviser to the Senate campaign of Budd, the Republican, against Beasley, the Democrat, in North Carolina. Felts said the Budd campaign, which benefited from Trump’s endorsement in the primary, has been in touch with Trump’s team about the fall but they don’t have an active plan in place yet.

At the same time, Democrats have built their fall messaging largely around the swing-vote skepticism of Trump’s brand of Republicanism and said they feel Trump has already helped, especially in Senate races, by elevating first-time candidates and pushing them to embrace more extreme positions, on issues like the validity of the 2020 election, in the primaries.

“We are happy that Trump is reminding voters about everything they don’t like about him and his candidates who have sworn fealty to him,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said. “The other thing to remember with the Senate map is that it is playing out on the backdrop of states that Trump lost. Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania — they have rejected Trump.”

Republicans privately say the reality is more complicated than most candidates are eager to admit. In the primary, Trump’s endorsement and the boost from a rally with him were the envy of all. In the general, though, Trump’s impact is decidedly more mixed. Especially in places where Republicans are hoping to make inroads into Democratic territory, Trump’s intervention is less welcome.

In Colorado, Republican Senate candidate Joe O’Dea has mounted a serious challenge to incumbent Democrat Michael F. Bennet by disavowing Trump’s false election claims. O’Dea has said he thinks Trump shouldn’t run in 2024 and would prefer new standard bearers such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley or Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). O’Dea’s campaign has been courting endorsements from local sheriffs and mayors rather than seeking assistance from Trump.

In Washington state, Republican Senate challenger Tiffany Smiley is also running from Trump’s shadow. “The campaign has had absolutely no contact” with Trump’s team, Smiley spokeswoman Elisa Carlson said. “It’s not something we’re actively pursuing. We’re focusing on our own race.”

In discussions with campaigns, Trump’s team has emphasized his interest in going where he’s wanted and not doing anything to hurt the party’s chances to win either house of Congress.

“The thing he and his people really don’t want is for us to lose, and him to be blamed. If Republicans do well, and he’s involved, it’s good for him,” a Republican involved in the discussions said.

Republicans want Trump to focus his message on immigration and inflation and crime — and not on the 2020 election or the Mar-a-Lago raid, according to a Republican involved in the talks. Still, this person recognized that Trump ultimately decides for himself what he wants to talk about on the campaign trail.

After racking up many wins in this year’s primaries, and absorbing some high-profile defeats, Trump scandals dominated headlines this summer, between the public hearings from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob and the FBI’s search warrant at Trump’s Florida resort. The search caused a surge of donor support for Trump, but it’s not clear whether that spilled over to other Republicans.

Even before the search, Trump had remained central to fundraising appeals for other candidates and party committees. Online donations across the party sagged this year, prompting complaints that Trump had tapped out small-dollar contributors and was now hoarding the cash. His PAC had almost $100 million in reserve as of July while spending less than $5 million on races and candidates.

In the same period, Democrats started seeing signs of hope cracking through widespread expectations of a red wave. Democrats outperformed their 2020 showings in a string of special elections for Congress, and recent polls showed the generic ballot flipping to Democrats’ favor.

“We haven’t been on offense for the last few months we have to get back on offense. He sets up a great contrast,” GOP pollster and Trump confidant Jim McLaughlin said. “All the problems that they are dealing with right now, he solved them, whether it is the economy, the border, gas prices.”

In 2020, from Labor Day to Election Day, Trump led over 50 tele-rallies and audio endorsements on behalf of candidates across the country, according to a former White House adviser. Trump’s aides said they expect him to mount a similar targeted effort this fall.

“Nobody turns out conservative voters better than Donald Trump does,” McLaughlin said.

Hannah Knowles, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Patrick Marley contributed to this report.

Apsny News