Thanks in large part to Donald Trump, Republicans lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. In 2022, due to his meddling in key primaries, they failed to retake the Senate. Now the GOP is rushing to embrace him as their standard-bearer once more in the hopes that this time will be different and he will carry them to victory.
Only this time, Trump is heading into a general election campaign with 91 criminal charges and potential jail time awaiting him, an unprecedented situation that threatens to drag his campaign down and repel independents and even some Republican voters who are tired of the constant chaos he creates.
The alarm bells are ringing in some corners of the GOP, but it’s likely already too late to stop his march to the nomination with the Iowa caucuses firmly under his belt and a sizable lead in polls of the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
“If Donald Trump is the nominee, the election will revolve around all these legal issues — his trials, perhaps convictions if he goes to trial and loses there, and about things like Jan. 6,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s 2024 primary rival, said during a CNN town hall earlier this week.
“We’re going to lose if that’s the decision voters are making based on that. We don’t want it to be a referendum on those issues,” added DeSantis, who placed second in Iowa on Monday and seems to be on the cusp of defeat.
Ever since winning the White House in 2016, Trump has delivered nothing but electoral losses for the GOP. In 2018, Democrats won the House by more than 40 seats thanks to a wave of anti-Trump sentiment unlocking congressional maps once thought to be perfect GOP gerrymanders. Then, two years later, Democrats swept to power in Washington, making Trump a one-term president and also winning control of the Senate with two surprise victories in Georgia, a state that had long been GOP. In 2022, Trump again dragged the GOP down, elevating far-right candidates who failed to take back the Senate.
“He consistently loses. In fact, he has a habit of losing not just his own elections but losing elections for others,” as Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) aptly put it last year. “We know he’s the shortest path to losing.”
Over the summer, a trio of anti-Trump GOP organizations ― the Koch network of conservative donors, the Club for Growth and the Republican Accountability Project ― all aired millions of dollars worth of advertising aimed at convincing voters that Trump was unelectable, to almost no effect.
Today, only the Koch network, which is now explicitly backing former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, is still pushing the message. The Club for Growth is instead seeking rapprochement with Trump.
And yet Trump crossed a notable milestone this week by winning the endorsement of a majority of Young’s Republican Senate colleagues. Somewhat ironically, the 25th senator to back Trump was none other than Ted Cruz of Texas, who, during his 2016 presidential campaign, called Trump a fake conservative, “amoral” and a “pathological liar.”
Cruz said he is proud to “enthusiastically” support Trump’s 2024 bid, adding that “now is the time for us to unite to oust Joe Biden and save our country from the Democrats’ destructive agenda.” Like Cruz, many Republicans have framed the election as a “binary choice” between Trump and Biden, even though there are still other candidates in the GOP primary contest, including DeSantis and Haley.
On Friday, Trump got even more good news: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a former 2024 rival, got off the sidelines and announced his support for the ex-president over Haley, who had appointed him to the Senate in 2012 when she was the governor of South Carolina.
“We need a president who doesn’t see Black or white. We need a president who sees Americans as one American family,” Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said while standing alongside Trump at a rally in New Hampshire.
Last October, when he was still in the presidential race, Scott said he didn’t believe Trump could win back the White House. “You have to be able to win in Georgia. I don’t think he can win in Georgia.”
Trump won by a historic margin in the Iowa caucuses, but weak voter turnout could signal broader problems for the GOP. About 108,000 people turned out to vote, far short of the nearly 187,000 who participated in 2016, though some of that could be attributed to record-breaking cold weather. DeSantis, though, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday that weather can’t account for all of the “abysmal” drop-off in participation, calling it “a warning sign for the party going forward into the fall.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who suspended his long-shot 2024 campaign this week after repeatedly urging the GOP to move past Trump, made a similar argument.
“We’re headed toward a cliff, and we’re going to go off that cliff because Donald Trump cannot attract independent voters,” Hutchinson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s very clear he’s not going to expand the base with the rhetoric that he has.”
But Trump has been making the opposite case to New Hampshire voters, saying at a campaign event on Wednesday that Haley as a GOP nominee “wouldn’t just lose the White House, she’d lose us the House and Senate.” Trump lost all three.
If the election were held today, though, Trump could very well win. Biden’s approval rating continues to hover under 40% in recent polls as voters cite concerns about the economy, the border, Biden’s foreign policy and his age. But the economic picture suddenly looks quite rosy for 2024, with consumer confidence way up and inflation way down. Facing off against Trump on the ballot again could give Democrats who aren’t excited about Biden a reason to head to the polls amid warnings about what a second Trump presidency would mean for democracy.
In New Hampshire, for example, Biden’s approval rating is just 38%, according to a Marist poll released Friday. Yet voters still choose Biden for president over Trump by 7 percentage points, indicating why many Democrats think they can win if the race is a choice between Trump and Biden rather than a referendum on the incumbent from Delaware.
Trump has been sued in New York and indicted in Georgia, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C. The charges against him include allegations that he plotted to reverse the 2020 election results, that he was involved in a hush-money scheme ahead of his 2016 election, that he mishandled classified documents and obstructed federal authorities’ efforts to recover them, and that he fraudulently inflated his business assets by billions.
But to Republicans backing Trump, none of that is concerning. In fact, some of them think it’ll help Trump in the general election.
“His legal challenges are making the public so angry because the lawsuits look punitive rather than legitimate,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “It just looks so fake, so contrived that people are disgusted with it.”
“The American people are not going to stand for that. All heck would break loose if that would happen,” added Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) about the prospect of Trump being convicted.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), meanwhile, said he has “a hard time understanding” why Trump’s legal issues don’t “seem to be moving the needle” with more voters.
“A lot of people in this country are out of touch with reality and will accept anything Donald Trump tells them,” Romney told reporters on Wednesday.