(WASHINGTON) — Republicans are hopeful that potential charges against former President Donald Trump will not wreak havoc on down-ballot races next year but are warning of dour consequences should candidates mishandle an unprecedented indictment.
Trump is facing possible indictment over hush money sent to porn actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign, adding to a lengthy list of prospective legal woes as he wages a third presidential campaign. But while the former president has so far defied political gravity amid intense legal scrutiny, Republican candidates seeking statewide, House and local offices will likely be inundated with questions over his run — while trying to get their own messaging to voters.
“Any Republican who’s not prepared to answer a question about the indictment, if it should come, and not prepared to pivot away from questions about Trump and back to the economy, crime and Biden’s shortcomings is going to have a really hard time,” said one GOP strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns.
Over a half-dozen Republican strategists and pollsters said a practiced and effective pivot away from the expected flood of inquiries over an indictment could help inoculate candidates from getting bogged down in an issue that doesn’t directly impact their campaign, with some proposing tying the indictment to concerns over violent crime and “cancel culture,” issues that have animated the GOP base.
“This case is going to be like a totem for Republicans for months,” said GOP strategist Scott Jennings. “When they’re giving speeches, it’s gonna be, ‘the Democrats and their elected prosecutors are doing nothing about violent crime. They spend all their time sifting through Donald Trump’s sex paperwork instead of putting violent criminals behind bars.’ If you said that at Lincoln Day dinner right now, you’d get a standing ovation.”
That canned answer could help candidates not get crosswise with GOP voters while avoiding endorsing Trump’s behavior. Trump has said money was sent to Daniels to prevent her from publicizing allegations of an affair the two had, though he denies ever being romantically involved with her.
“You will have candidates saying Trump is getting a raw deal. That’s different than releasing lengthy statements and doing interviews, basically becoming his surrogates,” the strategist with experience on Senate campaigns said. “I think that you’ll have a bunch of Republican candidates basically say, ‘I’d refer you to his team for the details. It seems like a raw deal to me. Let’s talk about my message."”
Alternatively, avoiding the issue altogether or altering one’s message for different audiences may be nonviable given the extent to which an indictment would be covered in the press, forcing candidates to address the issue head on.
“You’re gonna get asked about it. You need to decide what your position is on it. And you need to articulate it and stick to it,” said one strategist currently working on down-ballot races. “If you waffle on it, you’re not going to pick up any votes on the other side, and you’re gonna frustrate your voters.”
But getting mired in the details of Trump’s alleged affair with Daniels could alienate swing voters, and waffling on an indictment could anger a fiercely pro-Trump grassroots, leaving candidates to walk a tightrope over how and how much to address any charges.
“Can Republicans focus in on an agenda and a message that not only works with the base but also can appeal to swing independent voters in the five or six key swing states, or are they going to get dragged down into another chaotic Trump presidential run? And that I think is probably the biggest challenge going forward,” GOP pollster Robert Blizzard said.
Already, Republicans are flashing frustration over swirling controversies around Trump.
At a House GOP retreat earlier this month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Calif., accused reporters of forcing news cycle surrounding Trump, arguing his conference is focused on policy.
“We’re not talking about this in our conference; you’re asking about it,” McCarthy said after repeated questions over Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation. When asked if Trump is still the leader of the Republican party, McCarthy fired back, “In the press room, for all of you, he is.”
Republicans’ possible headache over Trump’s legal entanglements could worsen if other investigations into the former president escalate.
Trump is facing probes into his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia, possession of classified documents after leaving the White House and business practices, all of which operatives suggested could be more politically damaging than the Stormy Daniels case, which relies on facts that have been known for about seven years.
“If he’s the nominee next year at this time, and the nominee despite three or four criminal indictments hanging over his head, absolutely, that puts the entire map in jeopardy,” said the strategist who worked on Senate campaigns.
Still, any playbook could end up off base, with certain controversies, like the Jan. 6 riot, sticking to Trump and others, like the Access Hollywood tape, falling away, without any apparent pattern.
“I think the last time you and I talked was about the insurrection stuff, and I was like, ‘this stuff’s going away,’ and it clearly didn’t,” said one GOP consultant working with down-ballot candidates, citing Republicans’ underperformance in the 2022 midterms. “Maybe for me being a consultant … I’m hoping this kind of stuff goes away more than it actually does.”
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