Democrats know just how bad an environment they face heading into November’s midterm elections but hold out hope from an unlikely quarter: former President Trump.
Democrats believe Trump’s backing of flawed candidates in Republican primaries could saddle the GOP with losers in the general election.
They also hope Trump will retain his power as a powerful motivator of Democratic voters even when he isn’t on the ballot.
Then there is the long shadow of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The House Select Committee investigating the riot is expected to release a report into its findings in the months to come — just as the campaign for the midterms starts heating up.
Whether any of this will make a difference in a bad year for Democrats is an open question.
Inflation, President Biden’s low approval ratings and history — the president’s party usually loses seats in their first midterms —could be just too much to overcome.
But Democrats are looking for hope — and finding it in the man they usually love to hate.
“Trump could do the Democratic Party multiple favors all across the country, in terms of tilting the nomination to bizarro, unqualified candidates,” Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh told this column.
“To the degree that he is out there endorsing clearly unqualified candidates just because they kiss his ring — some of them with pretty crazy ideas — I think that puts us in a position where we could hold onto seats that we might not otherwise be able to, because of the environment.”
The trend, if it occurs, is far more likely to affect Senate races, where candidates have to appeal on a statewide basis, than to House races in districts that often lean overwhelmingly toward one party or the other.
That’s why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is sort of making the same argument as Longabaugh and other Democrats. On Tuesday, McConnell enthused about the GOP’s hospitable electoral atmosphere but warned the party could still “screw this up” if it nominates “unacceptable” candidates.
McConnell did not name Trump in his remarks, but the antipathy between the two is well-known.
Some in the GOP already blame Trump for their current minority status in the upper chamber, arguing that his false claims of election fraud depressed Republican turnout in Jan. 2021 runoff elections in Georgia. Those elections were won by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), delivering Democrats the slimmest possible Senate majority.
This time around, some Republicans are raising eyebrows again when they look toward Georgia, where Trump has backed former football star Herschel Walker in the GOP Senate primary to take on Warnock.
Walker is untested politically, faces questions about his business record and has a checkered personal history that includes accusations from his ex-wife that he threatened to kill her.
Trump has also backed Mehmet Oz — TV’s “Dr. Oz” — in the Senate primary in Pennsylvania. And on Thursday, NBC News reported that Trump was on the brink of endorsing author J.D. Vance in the equivalent contest in Ohio.
The question of whether Trump can spike Democratic turnout whenever he is not on the ballot is a more complicated one.
To be sure, Trump is reviled by a huge swath of Democratic voters.
An Economist/YouGov poll last week indicated that 77 percent of Democrats held a “very unfavorable” view of the former president with an additional seven percent declaring they have a “somewhat unfavorable” view.
The same poll found that, among the general population, 45 percent of adults have a “very unfavorable” view of Trump while nine percent say they see him in a “somewhat unfavorable” light.
But whether that will gin up turnout in a midterm election more likely to be dominated by kitchen-table concerns — such as inflation, which this week hit 8.5 percent, the highest level since 1981 — is doubtful.
Still, Democrats are hoping the specter of Trump will at least spur some supporters to get their credit cards out. On Thursday, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, sent a fundraising email that began: “Trump hinted he’ll run for President if Republicans retake the House.”
Democrats also expect new revelations soon on Jan. 6. On Wednesday, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who sits on the House panel investigating those events, said in an interview with The Washington Post that he believed the report would be “profuse in setting forth crimes that have not yet been alleged.”
But it’s by no means certain that Jan. 6 will have a bearing on the midterms, despite the gravity of the events that took place. Put simply, polls suggest most Americans have long ago made up their minds about those events.
“There is a difference between issues that can be important to individuals versus issues that people are going to decide their vote on,” said GOP pollster David Winston.
“If someone is trying to decide how they are going to get to work, or how they are going to feed their family for the month, those are their priorities, and those voters want to know what steps you are going to take to help with that…That doesn’t mean they think Jan. 6 is important or not important; it means they need to know what you’re going to do to deal with the challenges they are facing.”
Democrats hoping to benefit from a sizable “Trump factor” in November have to cope with one significant data point that appears to point the other way.
In last fall’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe often tried to tie his GOP opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to Trump. Youngkin ended up winning a state that President Biden had carried by 10 points the previous year.
Democrats like Longabaugh argue the Virginia example doesn’t disprove the anti-Trump case.
“There were a lot of factors at play with McAuliffe and there was some evidence that those attacks did work,” he said. “There was plenty of research that showed it was really Terry’s handling of the education and school issue that was the primary driver in that election. I don’t think you can look at that race and decide tying candidates to the outrageous positions of Donald Trump doesn’t work.”
There is also no guarantee that it will work either, of course.
But Democrats face such a stiff uphill battle in November that they are looking for advantage wherever they can find it.
For now, it looks like Trump is the most inviting target.