GOP strategists and pollsters expect former President Trump’s criminal trials to divide their party, creating a challenge for the Senate and House Republican candidates who will have to walk a fine line on the issue.
Trump’s legal troubles and his escalating battle with the Department of Justice will a become litmus test in GOP primaries next year — just as Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen helped define candidates as MAGA-aligned in 2022, GOP strategists say.
Candidates running in swing states and districts, especially Republicans trying to appeal to independent and college-educated women, will have to keep their distance from Trump’s legal problems, which could become a major liability for the GOP in the general election, they say.
Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster, said Trump “has major problems, particularly with college-educated women.”
“They have basically moved away from the Republican Party at this point and become a core part of the Democratic coalition,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. With different candidates and a different appeal, I think many of them could come back to the Republicans. But Trump has driven away a great many college-educated women at this point.”
At the same time, Republicans in competitive primaries need to be careful not to alienate Trump’s core supporters, who make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the GOP electorate.
“If he is the nominee in 2024, he will be zero help. He’ll be a drag on the ticket, he will be a drag on Republicans, especially down-ballot Republicans,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin, where Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) is up for reelection.
“This is where you divide the Republican Party into two camps,” Scholz said. “One camp says, ‘Let the president figure out his own legal problems. We run on our own. We’re not here to talk about Donald Trump’s legal problems.’
“Then there’s the other half who will just say, ‘It’s a political attack and it’s not deserving and they didn’t do it to Joe Biden,’” he said. “I just don’t think the Republican Party is going to have a consistent message regarding Trump, they’re going to be split.”
Trials vs. primaries
Polls show Trump dominating the GOP field, leading his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by an average of 38 percentage points in recent national polls.
He faces as many as four criminal trials and two civil trials over the next 18 months, which means his courtroom dramas will likely coincide with primary election dates, when Trump will be on the ballot in some states along with candidates battling for Senate and House nominations.
For example, in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, four Senate battleground states where there may be competitive GOP primaries, the presidential and down-ballot primaries are scheduled for the same dates: June 4 in Montana, March 19 in Ohio, April 23 in Pennsylvania and May 14 in West Virginia.
“I’ve seen Trump recently made a joke on the trail, ‘One more indictment and I got this thing in the bag,’” said Ohio-based Republican strategist Matt Dole, referring to how Trump’s legal battles have rallied Republican voters behind him.
But he warned that the legal fights could have a different impact on independent and moderate voters in the general election.
“He may have the primary in the bag but it certainly will have an impact on the general election,” he said.
Trump’s trial in Manhattan on 34 felony charges related to his payment of hush money to an adult film actress is scheduled to begin on March 25, while his trial in South Florida on 40 criminal charges related to his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago is scheduled for May.
Special counsel Jack Smith has called for a “speedy trial” for Trump in Washington, D.C.’s, district court on four Jan. 6-related criminal charges, prompting speculation the Department of Justice wants to wrap up the trial before the Republican presidential convention scheduled for mid-July in Wisconsin.
Trump also faces the start of a defamation trial involving the writer E. Jean Carroll on Jan. 15 and a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James accusing Trump and his family business of committing loan and insurance fraud. James’s office announced last week its case is “ready for trial.”
Trump faces another criminal trial in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is preparing to charge him with trying to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election.
“When you get right down to it, this is going to be a s— show,” Scholz said. “Every trial with Trump, it’s going to be witnesses on the stand, it’s going to be statements. It’s going to be a story to itself. I don’t know when those trials would end, how soon before November 2024, but for every day they get closer to the election the worse it’s going to be.”
Arizona is a worry for the GOP
Some Senate Republican strategists are already writing off their party’s chances of winning the Arizona Senate seat now held by Kyrsten Sinema (I) because former television news anchor Kari Lake, a Trump acolyte who embraced his claims of election fraud, is viewed as a front-runner for the GOP nomination.
A looming question ahead of next year’s primaries is whether some candidates will echo Trump’s attacks on the Department of Justice and broader legal system to ingratiate themselves with Trump’s core supporters.
That’s the strategy that Don Bolduc, a former Army brigadier general, employed in 2022 when he won the Senate Republican nomination in New Hampshire by insisting that Trump had won the 2020 presidential election.
Bolduc tried to reverse course before the November general election by claiming he had “done a lot of research” and came to the “conclusion” the election was not stolen. He wound up losing the race by 9 percentage points to Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).
Ayres, the GOP strategist and pollster, noted “a great many election-denying candidates won their primaries before getting crushed in the general election.”
He said the criminal charges against Trump for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election will likely play into next year’s races the same way that his claims of election fraud did in the midterms. But he warned that Republicans who take that position could find it comes back to hurt them in the general election.