The Trump Factor for 2021 and 2022

AW
August 12, 2021

For the first time in more than four years, Donald Trump has receded into the background. He no longer grabs the headlines and wall-to-wall cable TV coverage that he craves. Banned from social media, his opinions on everything from the women's national soccer team to the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, musings that at one time could shift a news cycle, are now released in memo form to minimal attention. Congress has also moved on. Kind of. Even as the House remains mired in partisanship and pettiness (Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a "moron", while McCarthy joked about banging Pelosi with the Speaker's gavel), the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill; legislation that Trump himself never had the patience or commitment to make happen in his administration. 

And yet, his shadow continues to linger over all things 2021 and 2022. He remains the biggest fundraising force on the GOP side, hoarding more than $100M in his campaign bank account. And, while his endorsements aren't bulletproof, they remain a prized asset in a GOP primary. However, many Republicans worry that his continued attacks on voting integrity could depress base turnout next fall. Meanwhile, Democrats are eager to keep him — and his divisive personality — on display. Trump-ism remains one of the best GOTV and fundraising tools in Democrats' arsenal. 

In the modern era, no politician has been able to engage and enrage voters like Donald J. Trump. He brought more people into the voting booth than ever before. For Republicans, however, that enthusiasm is a double-edged sword. While his rallies have always attracted thousands of people, it's his presence on the ballot that really drives GOP turnout. Midterm elections always see a drop in voter participation, but in 2018, that drop was much more significant on the GOP side. In Pennsylvania, one of the closest contests in 2016, GOP Senate nominee Lou Barletta, whom Trump not only endorsed but actively campaigned for, got 835,000 fewer votes than Trump had gotten four years earlier; an almost 30 percent drop. But, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey came just 134,000 votes shy of Clinton's showing, or a much smaller four percent drop from 2016. Moreover, many of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents — like the three freshmen in California (Reps. Michelle Steel, Young Kim and Mike Garcia) — owe their victories to the fact that they outperformed Trump in 2020 by anywhere from eight thousand to almost twenty thousand votes. In other words, having him on the ballot wasn't helpful for many House candidates in 2020, while not having him on the ballot likely hurt statewide GOP candidates in 2018.

The fact that Trump continues to vacuum up huge sums of cash is also unhelpful for congressional Republicans. But, not because it means he is siphoning it away from candidates who will need it next year. Republican candidates, especially those in high-profile races, will still be able to raise plenty of money. There is not a finite amount of cash sloshing around the political system. However, what could be problematic for the GOP is when crunch time hits next fall and they see last-minute opportunities and weak spots to fill, their most obvious source of campaign cash won't deliver. On paper, Trump's $100M-plus campaign coffers could be a great source of last-minute funding. But, we know that the former president isn't all that interested in spending money on any candidate besides himself. 

Then there's the primary problem. Democrats are hopeful (and many Republicans worried) that GOP primary season in 2022 will be a replay of 2010 and 2012 when deeply flawed Tea-Party aligned candidates defeated more established (and more electable) Republicans. But, it's more than just the kind of candidates who emerge from these primaries. It's also about the amount of time all GOP candidates are forced to spend talking about Trump. In an interview with National Journal's Josh Kraushaar GOP strategist Jordan Shaw worries that GOP primaries will devolve into contests of which candidate can 'out-Trump' the other. "Let's not lose the general [election]," Jordan tells Kraushaar, "by winning the primary." If Republicans allow the primary to be dominated by Trump, says Jordan, it means that Republicans are going to spend the general election talking too much about Trump and not enough about Biden and the Democratic agenda. 

Re-litigating 2020 is also a sure loser, worries another GOP strategist we spoke to this month. The more that Trump and his supporters bemoan "rigged" elections and promote outlandish 'audits' of 2020 ballots, said this strategist, the more they risk drying up GOP enthusiasm for voting next fall. You don't have to look much farther than the Senate run-offs in Georgia earlier this year, where Trump's attacks on voting integrity were blamed for a drop in turnout in rural parts of the state. 

While many Republicans are trying to keep Trump out of the 2022 elections, Democrats are doing all they can to keep him front and center with the hope that it keeps their base engaged and turned out. But, with Trump no longer dominating politics like he once did, is that even possible? In a recent essay in the New Yorker, David Sedaris, an acerbic chronicler of modern American life, perfectly captures the reality for many liberal and anti-Trump folks in the era of Biden. "When Trump was President," Sedaris wrote, "I started every morning by reading the New York Times, followed by the Washington Post and would track both papers' Web sites regularly throughout the day. To be less than vigilant was to fall behind…It was exhausting." he wrote. But, "the moment Joe Biden was sworn into office I let it all go." Now, Sedaris writes, he doesn't pay attention to the political news anymore. As for Biden, the less he sees, the better. "When the new President speaks, I feel the way I do on a plane when the pilot announces that after reaching our cruising altitude he will head due north, or take a left at Lake Erie. You don't need to tell me about your job, I always think. Just, you know, do it."

The lack of vigilance may be freeing for Sedaris, but many Democrats worry that this lack of intensity will cost them seats in 2022. One Democratic strategist said recently, "The bottom line is this: to retain control of Congress, voters must be convinced of the grave threat Republicans pose. It will not be enough to govern well, have positive approval ratings and a strong economy. Fortunately," said this strategist, "the surge in Democratic voters in 2018 and 2020 provide an unprecedented reservoir that can be mobilized in 2022." In other words, thanks to Trump, there are more Democratic-leaning voters in the system than ever. But, to keep them engaged, they need to remain, well, enraged.

In Virginia, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is going all-in on re-stoking the anti-Trump fervor. According to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has spent more than $1.4 million dollars on ads linking his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to Donald Trump. In fact, according to AdImpact, three of the four TV ads that the McAuliffe campaign has run in the general election thus far mention Trump. Virginia, however, is a less than ideal state to test the effectiveness of this strategy. This once-purple state is now solidly blue. A better testing ground would be in a more narrowly divided state. 

The outcome of the 2022 midterm election will depend more on what is happening with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue than its former occupant. Even so, the Trump factor can have an impact on the margins. And, as I've been writing for months now, it is on the margins where control of Congress will be won.

AP Photo/John Minchillo, File