Americans are in a bad mood, and that could be good news for Republicans come November.
With high inflation and gas prices putting the squeeze on many people’s quality of life, recession around the corner and faith in the government’s ability to do anything about it plummeting, it would take a remarkable turnaround to reverse the party’s trajectory toward gains in both houses of Congress in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
More than three-quarters of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, including nearly two-thirds of Democrats, according to a poll from the Siena College Research Institute conducted earlier this month for the New York Times.
“It’s a staggering number,” said Siena’s director, Dan Levy. “That doesn’t typically bode well for a party who has those conditions.”
And while most polls suggest the race for Congress remains close, some have the ruling party trailing by as much as 10 points.
Trump, Pence look to midterms
Former U.S. president Donald Trump tapped into what he called the “incredible opportunity” the midterms present for the Republicans when he returned to Washington this week for the first time since leaving the White House last January.
Speaking to an audience of Republican lawmakers, former advisers and sympathizers assembled at a downtown D.C. hotel, he painted a bleak picture of a country “brought to its knees” by the Biden administration, beset by crime and diminished on the world stage.
“Our country is going to hell very fast,” he said. “We have become a beggar nation grovelling to other countries for energy.”
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A few hours earlier at a separate event, his former vice-president, Mike Pence, promised a “bold and positive agenda” to bring America back from the brink.
While still hesitant to denigrate his former boss, who tried to get him to overturn the 2020 election, Pence did attempt to get a little distance and positioned himself as the forward-looking face of the party.
“I truly do believe that elections are about the future,” he told the national conservative student conference. “And it is absolutely essential, at a time when so many Americans are hurting … that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back.”
But polls show the former vice-president will have a steep hill to climb to catch up to Trump if both end up vying for the party’s presidential nomination.
No one has yet declared their candidacy, but currently, only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is polling in the double digits against Trump in hypothetical matchups of those who haven’t ruled it out. In the Siena poll, 25 per cent of those who say they will vote in the Republican presidential primary chose DeSantis as their nominee over the 49 per cent who prefer Trump and nine per cent who chose Pence.
“That’s still an overwhelming lead at this point in time,” said Levy.
Still a ‘dominating force’
The leadership contest won’t begin in earnest until after the midterms, but the question of whether Trump will run already looms large.
Polls have him and Biden within three to five percentage points of each other, and there is little evidence that perceptions of him within the party have changed significantly. Sixty-one per cent of Republicans still think he won the last election, and 80 per cent don’t think he committed serious crimes in relation to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, according to the Siena poll.
“We don’t see evidence of a groundswell of erosion for Trump’s candidacy,” Levy said. “Trump remains the dominating force in the Republican Party.”
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Levy said it might work to Trump’s advantage to announce his candidacy sooner rather than later to siphon support away from other would-be contenders such as Ted Cruz or Nikki Haley and strengthen his position against DeSantis, but there are also fears that announcing before the midterms could hurt Republicans’ chances.
Kale Ogunbor, 20, voted for Trump in 2020 but wants her party to focus on the midterms, not the leadership race.
“Let’s go win the election and then we can hash it out,” said the Pennsylvania State University engineering student who attended the student summit in Washington this week.
She has yet to decide who she’ll support but worries that, at 76, Trump is too old to run again. She’d like to hear the Republican Party present more concrete solutions to the economic crisis.
“You can’t just keep saying, ‘Oh, gas is high.’ You actually have to convince people why you’re the ‘right’ side,” Ogunbor said.
She’d also like to see Republicans adopt a “message of compassion” when it comes to the abortion issue.
“I’m not going to start yelling at people who don’t agree with me,” she said. “Let’s make sure that ladies know what their options are and try our best to make abortion unthinkable just for people in general.”
Fellow student Ava Sherwood Erculiani, 19, of Evansburg, Pa., supported Trump and likes that he brought new people to the Republican Party but wants a more moderate candidate this time around.
She was impressed with DeSantis’s opposition to federal COVID-19 measures and thinks he could have a chance.
“He did not listen to the federal government, and he really kept Florida free,” she told CBC’s Katie Simpson. “I think we need someone who is strong willed and isn’t going to be bought out by different PACs [political action committees].”
WATCH | Young DeSantis supporter explains Florida governor’s appeal:
Trump endorsements help some but not all in primaries
Whether he announces before the midterms or not, Trump is already playing a role in the state primary contests. While an endorsement from him is no guarantee, it can make a difference in the districts with crowded primary slates where he can help long-shot candidates eke out a win, says Republican analyst Scott Jennings.
He cites the examples of J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of Hillbilly Elegy, and celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, known as Dr. Oz, who won their Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively, with help from Trump.
In some cases, says Jennings, Democrats are aiding the campaigns of Trump-endorsed candidates in hopes they will be easier to beat than establishment Republicans in the fall.
In Michigan, for example, the Democratic congressional campaign committee is accused of running ads to boost the chances of a candidate who has endorsed false election claims and conspiracy theories over freshman congressman Peter Meijer, who was one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 riot.
It’s a risky and cynical strategy, said Jennings, who has worked on the campaigns of George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and others.
“The environment is so good for Republicans, it’s conceivable to me that some of these candidates, even the poor candidates, could trip across the finish line in first place,” he said. “And Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.”
Fear of losing could propel competitors
As for the presidential contest, Jennings suspects that if Joe Biden does run, the fear of losing to him will drive some to reconsider their support for Trump.
“The idea that we would lose to him or his successor is anathema to the average Republican so, to the extent Trump puts you in danger of doing that, I think that’s going to be a pretty powerful message for some primary opponent to him.”
For now, as long as Republicans stay focused on the issues and don’t get distracted by relitigating the last election, the race is theirs to lose, he said.
“Any minute you’re not talking about the economy and quality of life is a lost minute … and frankly, it’s a lost opportunity,” he said.
“So my advice to Republicans: take what the universe is giving you.”