Former President Donald Trump’s persistent grumbling about the 2020 election is a losing proposition for the Republican Party rendered harmless only by voters’ broad dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden.
That is the assessment of Republican strategists working in the trenches of this year’s midterm election campaigns. Look no further, party operatives say, than Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is poised to defeat former Sen. David Perdue in Tuesday’s primary. Trump tapped Perdue to challenge Kemp because he blames the governor for his loss in Georgia in 2020, claiming the state, and victory overall, were stolen from him. Republican voters have stuck with Kemp.
“The economy continues to poll as the top issue for conservatives because they are feeling inflation and high gas prices in their wallets,” said a GOP strategist in Georgia. “Election integrity has an expiration date — and it’s expired.”
The Georgia governor’s obvious, not-so-secret sauce, say Republicans monitoring the Kemp-Perdue primary, is that the incumbent focused on voters’ top priorities and ran a campaign about the future. The challenger prosecuted a campaign about the past and suffered. In this instance, say relieved GOP insiders, the party was rendered harmless because Trump’s incessant complaints about 2020 were dealt with in the confines of a primary.
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Republican operatives worry the party might not be so lucky in November if nominees in competitive general election contests echo Trump’s “stolen election” complaints and sideline the kitchen table issues that voters care about most. This has emerged as an immediate concern in Pennsylvania, where Trump-endorsed gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, a state senator, has made the former president’s unsupported election fraud claims a rallying cry of his own.
“This [approach] is especially counterproductive in races where we are challenging incumbents or looking to flip Democratic-held governor or attorney general seats,” said a Republican strategist based in a Midwestern battleground state.
In this context, what contests are Republicans worried about — depending on who emerges as their nominee? Gubernatorial races in Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, among others. However, Republicans are largely optimistic about 2022.
Biden is the reason.
The president’s job approval ratings are so low — 41.3%, on average — and frustration with his leadership on key issues so extensive that Republicans are confident any political hurdles otherwise precipitated by Trump’s promotion of 2020 conspiracies will be overshadowed. What other metrics have GOP strategists convinced voters are poised to sweep Democrats from power in the House and Senate this year?
The generic ballot favors Republicans 45.5% to 43.4%. Meanwhile, Biden’s job approval is even worse on key issues than it is overall. For instance, the president’s rating on the economy, by far the most important issue to voters, is an abysmal 38%, according to a recent Associated Press/NORC poll.
“Would it be more helpful if President Trump and his closes allies were more focused on ’22 than ’20? Of course,” a Republican strategist in Washington, D.C., said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s changing the subject for voters either.”
Despite Republican frustration with Trump over this issue, the unwillingness of so many in the party to criticize him on the record is revealing. Especially revealing is the hesitancy to dismiss Trump’s claims among elected Republicans.
The former president enjoys the strong support of Republican voters, many of whom believe his claims about the 2020 election. Others might not agree with Trump’s most disturbing claims, that the election was stolen, but they are in accord with the president in that they believe there was something not quite right about the final tally or last-minute rules changes ordered by various courts.
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Consequently, many prominent Republicans who hold elected office often say publicly that the party should focus on 2020 and 2022 equally — in other words, pursuit of what went wrong in the last election should continue and be a part of the political discussion but share the stage with a positive message that focuses on what Republicans are going to do to right the wrongs of the Biden administration.