The beginning of May before midterm elections signals the official start of primary season and the kickoff of fall campaigns. Because midterms are usually referendums on a president’s performance, the conventional view now is that Democrats are in deep trouble because Biden’s approval ratings are in the cellar.
But the conventional view doesn’t account for the Trump factor, which gives Democrats a fighting chance of keeping one or both chambers.
According to recent polls, Trump’s popularity continues to sink. He is liked by only 38 percent of Americans and disliked by 46 percent. (12 percent are neutral.) And Trump continues to slide: Among voters 45-64 years old – a group exit polls show Trump won 50% to 49% in 2020 – just 39 percent now view him favorably and 57 percent unfavorably. Among voters older than 65 – 52 percent of whom voted for him in 2000 to Biden’s 47 percent – only 44 percent now see him favorably and more than half (54%) view him unfavorably. Importantly, independents hold him in even lower regard. Just 26 percent view him favorably and 68 percent unfavorably.
Republican lawmakers had hoped and assumed that Trump would fade from the scene by the 2022 midterms, allowing them to engage in full-throttled attacks on Democrats.
But Trump hasn’t faded. In fact, his visibility is growing daily.
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The media is framing the May Republican primaries as all about Trump. The Ohio primary was a giant proxy battle over him, in which Republican candidates outdid each other trying to sound just like Trump – railing against undocumented immigrants, coastal elites, “socialism,” and “wokeness,” and regurgitating the Big Lie.
Trump’s April 15 endorsement of JD Vance made the difference – as could his backing of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s May 17 primary and Hershel Walker in Georgia’s May 24 primary. But whether Trump’s bets pay off in wins for these candidates is beside the point. Trump is making these races all about himself —and in so doing, casting the midterms as a referendum on his continuing power and influence.
June’s televised hearings of the House January 6 committee will likely show how Trump and his White House orchestrated the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and rekindle memories of Trump’s threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian president Zelensky came up with dirt on Biden.
Here again, the real significance of these hearings won’t be seen in Trump’s approval ratings but in Trump’s heightened visibility in the months before the midterms – and its almost certain shift in voters’ preferences toward the Democrats.
Also likely in June (according to leaked documents) is a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold Oklahoma’s near ban on abortion and reverse Roe v. Wade – courtesy of Trump’s three Court nominees whom Trump explicitly nominated in order to reverse Roe.
The high court’s decision will green-light other Republican states to enact similar bans, and spur Republicans in Congress to push for national legislation to virtually bar abortions across the country. Republicans believe this would ignite their base, but it’s more likely to ignite a firestorm among the vast majority of Americans who believe abortion should be legal. Score another one for Trump.
There is also the distinct possibility of criminal trials over Trump’s business and electoral frauds (such as his brazen attempt to change the Georgia vote tally). Again, their significance for the midterms is less about whether Trump is found guilty than about their continuing reminders of his lawlessness.
Meanwhile, America will be treated to more Trump rallies, interviews, and barnstorming to convince voters the 2020 election was stolen from him, along with his incessant demands that Republican candidates reiterate his Big Lie.
Somewhere along the line, also before the midterms, Elon Musk will allow Trump back on Twitter. The move would be bad for America, but it would remind voters of how whacky, racist, and dangerously incendiary Trump continues to be.
Oh, and don’t forget the antics of Trump’s many surrogates – Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Steven Bannon, Madison Cawthorn, and others – who mimic Trump’s bravado, bigotry, divisiveness, and disdain for the law. All are walking billboards for Trumpism’s heinous impact on American life.
All will push wavering voters toward Democrats in November.
I’m not suggesting Democrats seeking election or reelection should center their campaigns around Trump. To the contrary, Democrats need to show their continuing commitment to average working people. Between now and November, they should provide help with childcare, cut the costs of prescription drugs, and stop oil companies for price gouging, to take but three examples.
If they do this, they can count on Trump to remind Americans of the hatefulness and chaos he unleashed. The combination – Democrats scoring some additional victories for working people, and Trump being Trump – could well reverse conventional wisdom about midterms and keep Dems in control of Congress.