WASHINGTON (The Hill) — Former President Trump’s plans to announce his 2024 presidential campaign as early as this summer—well before what he previously indicated—throw a wrench into Republicans’ strategy for winning back the Senate and House majorities in November. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made clear they want the 2022 midterms to be a referendum on Pres. Joe Biden and his handling of inflation and the economy.
But that strategy will run into trouble if Trump announces his plans to run for president again in 2022. An early Trump campaign kickoff would give plenty of opportunity for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats to make November a referendum on Trump instead of Biden. Republican and Democratic strategists say Trump will also provide a shot of energy and motivation to a dispirited Democratic base that right now feels less enthusiastic than Republicans about voting in the midterms.
“Midterm elections tend to be referenda on the governing party and given President Biden’s rock-bottom job approval rating, anything that detracts from a focus on the Biden administration and its many failures weakens the Republicans’ ability to take control of Congress,” said Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report rates four New York House races as toss-ups. Biden’s job approval rating now stands at 38%, according to an average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
Ayres says Republican voters are significantly more motivated than Democrats to vote given liberal disappointment over the Biden agenda. “No question about it. The administration has managed to increase Republican enthusiasm and depress Democratic enthusiasm by the way it has governed,” he said.
Former Rep. Jim Walsh (R), who represented a swing district in upstate New York, said a Trump 2024 anouncement could hurt Republican candidates in competitive races. “I think it causes problems for Republicans. If Trump were to announce this summer, I think it definitely causes problems for Republicans,” he said. he also said that if Trump launches his campaign, “it’s not going to bring Republicans out this election but what it may do is motivate Democrats.”
Democrats acknowledge that they face an enthusiasm gap, but say that would likely change if Trump announces plans to run again for president. They say their voters are already more energized in the wake of the 6-3 Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case.
Trump considered announcing his White House bid last year in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, when Biden’s approval ratings began their downward spiral, but was talked out of it by his advisers. They cautioned the former president at the time that he didn’t want to “own” the midterm results if Republicans fell short of winning back the Senate and House, according to a Washington Post report in October of 2021.
The former president is now motivated to announce a bid as polls show he is losing popular support amid the damaging revelations from the House select Jan. 6 committee’s hearings. This has opened the door for potential rivals, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who led Trump 39% to 37% among likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, an early primary state, according to a recent University of New Hampshire poll.
Republican leaders in Congress fear a new Trump bid would ensure the midterms will be a fight over Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election. Leaders in Congress repeatedly advise Republican candidates to focus on Biden’s agenda and the economic problems facing the nation today instead of relitigating the 2020 election.
“Objectively speaking, it would be best if this midterm were run as a referendum on Biden, his overall performance and inflation, the economy, and quality of life. That’s an unassailable fact,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns.
But Jennings said analysts can’t assume “Donald Trump cares about whether Republicans win the midterms or not.” He added that “His tactical objectives here are different than the party’s, and he’s never shown much of an interest in what’s best for the party in this regard.”
Many Senate Republicans blamed Trump for contributing to their loss of two Senate seats in last year’s election runoff in Georgia because he claimed fraud in the 2020 November election, depressing GOP turnout in the following January runoff. “Case in point, the Georgia special we had in January of last year,” Jennings pointed out. “Trump gave no thought whatsoever to what it meant to tell Republicans their vote no longer counted.”
McConnell on Tuesday hammered Biden’s successful push for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March of last year without a single Republican vote, which Republicans say fueled inflation. “On a party-line basis, not a single Republican in the House or Senate voting for it, they dumped almost two trillion [dollars] on the economy,” he said during remarks to the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce, echoing what has become his midterm election message.
McConnell regularly deflects questions about Trump and his actions in the runup to the January 6 attack on the Capitol when asked by reporters, usually replying that he’s paying more attention to the issues immediately before the Senate. Jennings predicted that McConnell and other Republicans will find a way to adapt if Trump launches his White House campaign early, even if it’s not an ideal scenario.
Jennings also said that Democrats were always planning on making Trump central to their midterm campaign message for the Senate and House, even though Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s effort to do just that in the Virginia 2021 gubernatorial race failed to earn him a victory.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who was close to the Trump White House, acknowledged that the GOP establishment doesn’t want Trump to jump into the presidential race early but he argued Republican leaders in Washington don’t fully understand Trump’s effectiveness on the campaign trail. “If he’s driving the conversation, you could make an argument that he could help the Republicans even more because it’s not like the Democrats aren’t trying to focus on Trump anyway as part of their plan to scrape back some seats in the House or the Senate,” he said. “Democrats are underestimating the fact that Trump is a one-man political force of nature.”
“Mitch McConnell’s a very establishment person and he’s going to go along with the conventional wisdom” that Republicans are better off in November with Trump on the sidelines, Ford said. “That’s what Mitch is probably thinking but I don’t if Mitch is right on that front,” he added. “It’s not like the Democrats aren’t trying to run on Trump already.”