Top Republicans are keeping a wary eye on Donald Trump, worried the former president might announce a 2024 bid before Election Day this year, distracting voters from President Joe Biden’s embattled leadership and galvanizing Democratic turnout.
With speculation rising that Trump could declare for president before the midterm elections to box out GOP competitors, some Republican strategists and party insiders are anxious. They fret the move would transform a referendum on Biden poised to generate a massive Republican electoral wave on Nov. 8 into a more evenhanded debate between the president, reeling from skyrocketing inflation and myriad crises, and his polarizing predecessor.
The fear is not so much that Trump’s direct injection into the midterm campaign turns Biden into a popular president and makes 2022 a Democratic year. Rather, Republicans are concerned the 45th president’s early candidacy would dilute Republican messaging focused on Biden and boost moribund Democratic enthusiasm, shrinking the size of the red wave in a manner that tempers GOP gains in the House and Senate.
“Trump being front and center could affect GOP gains in the House by five seats or so,” said Jeff Burton, a Republican strategist in Austin, Texas. “But it could really affect the Senate, which could end up 50/50 again based on how the seats are looking.”
“Anything, and I mean anything, that takes the focus off the miserable job Joe Biden is doing is bad for Republicans,” added Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and co-host of Ruthless, a podcast popular among conservatives.
Earlier this month, NBC News reported Trump was mulling whether to announce a 2024 bid this summer. Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans planning to run for president wait for the midterm elections to conclude before making overt moves to build their operation, let alone launch a campaign. But the former president’s considerations of an early reveal are based at least in part on a desire to preserve his advantage over multiple other Republicans preparing to run.
Despite Trump’s popularity with grassroots Republicans, he would face competition in the 2024 primary. Prominent Republicans who are signaling Trump’s entry into the contest would not preclude them from running include his former running mate, former Vice President Mike Pence; his former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; and a political ally, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — among others who are traveling to key early primary states and taking steps to mount White House bids.
For Republican politicians and operatives fixated on the election at hand, Trump running for president is not necessarily concerning, versus when he announces. They want a clean shot at Biden and Democrats in Congress so that they have the best opportunity to run up the score and win governing majorities. The Democrats are defending a five-seat House majority. Their Senate advantage rests on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
“It would not be in the president’s best interest to launch his campaign that early — and it would definitely be a distraction [in terms of] the midterm elections,” one House Republican said, requesting anonymity to speak critically of Trump. Republicans are hoping the allure of taking credit for a big Republican victory in the midterm elections will forestall an early 2024 announcement.
“If Trump is smart, he will get that and declare victory for the largest possible win after it happens,” said a Republican strategist advising several candidates on the 2022 ballot.
“The problem is that all Republican candidates would suddenly have to answer a new question — and they’d all prefer to only be talking about Joe Biden,” this strategist added. “We need an election that’s a pure plebiscite on Biden’s job approval, an election in which the conversation is about Biden and Biden alone.”
With Biden’s job approval ratings cratering at just under 40% and Republicans leading Democrats on the generic ballot 46.4% to 43%, Republicans are positioned for significant gains this fall in Congress and contests for office at the state and local levels. In interviews with more than a dozen veteran Republican insiders for this story, none predicted that Trump announcing for president this summer would fundamentally alter this favorable atmosphere.
But while some Republicans are clearly concerned Trump’s activity could diminish the size and scope of their victory in the midterm elections, others are unconvinced it would matter, given voter attitudes about Biden and Democratic leadership in Washington.
Trump launching a 2024 campaign this summer certainly wouldn’t improve Biden’s dismal approval ratings, they said. Nor, they added confidently, would it negatively affect the ability of GOP congressional candidates or crucial party organizations, such as the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to raise the resources necessary to maximize gains in the midterm elections.
“As much as I’d hope he would wait and not shake up what will be a great year for Republicans, if Biden’s numbers stay where they are and gas prices and inflation get worse, I don’t think Trump interjecting hurts as much as some people might think,” a Republican strategist in a western battleground state said. “Folks are really angry, and it supersedes their feelings about Trump.”
A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.