The GOP hopes to take control of Congress, but Trump stands in the way

Former President Trump, campaigning for GOP candidates in Pennsylvania on Saturday, turned the spotlight back on his legal troubles, calling FBI agents “evil monsters” who thwarted Democrats’ efforts to keep him out of office. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Two months ago, as Americans began their summer vacation, the political landscape looked bleak for Joe Biden and his Democrats.

Inflation was sky high. the president’s popularity was sinking. Political forecasters said a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in November’s congressional elections seemed almost a foregone conclusion. A Democratic takeover of the Senate was also possible, which would have condemned Biden to two years of partisan gridlock.

Last week, the mood had changed. Biden’s approval rating, while still well below 50%, had struggled back into respectability. Polls by the Wall Street Journal and CBS News showed the November election was tighter — not enough to give Democrats much confidence, but enough to spook Republicans.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal poll, Democrats held a slight advantage, 47 percent to 44 percent, when voters were asked which party they preferred on the ballot in Congress — the first Democratic lead all year in Journal surveys.

Pollsters point to several reasons for the shift. Gas prices fell a bit. Congress rescued Biden’s legislative agenda by passing a sweeping climate and health care bill. And the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights is galvanizing moderate women and younger voters.

Now add an unusual wildcard – the raging re-emergence of former President Trump, the most polarizing figure in American politics.

Since losing to Biden in the 2020 presidential election, Trump has never gone away, of course. Unlike other former presidents, he not only refused to admit defeat in the election, but demanded continued submission from his party and plotted a possible comeback.

As the 2022 congressional campaign has heated up, Trump has roared back into the arena, endorsing GOP candidates who support his baseless allegations of voter fraud and chastising those who don’t.

Even if he wasn’t campaigning, Trump would be in the news thanks to an FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago, Florida home for classified documents he kept, apparently illegally, when he left the White House.

But Trump has tried to turn his legal troubles into a rallying point for his supporters.

On Saturday, at a GOP rally in Pennsylvania, he denounced FBI agents as “vicious monsters” who were following orders from Democrats “to prevent me from returning to the White House.”

The investigation at Mar-a-Lago last month angered Trump and his supporters.

The former president denounced it as an “attack on democracy.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, one of his staunchest cheerleaders, said it was time to “defund the FBI.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Trump aide, warned that prosecuting the former president would cause “riots in the streets.”

Not surprisingly, the ensuing legal battles dominated news coverage for weeks — and got in the way of the campaign message Republican leaders hoped to push.

“If everything [in the news] it’s Mar-a-Lago every night, it’s hard to keep the economy at the top of people’s minds,” pollster and GOP strategist David Winston told me last week.

The key to the GOP’s prospects in November isn’t mobilizing Trump loyalists to vote, he said. have already been activated. He is reaching out to independents and moderate Republicans.

“This election is going to be about independents,” Winston said, adding that when those voters see Trump on their television screens, “their reaction is, ‘That guy again?'”

When the conversation is about Biden and the economy, that’s good for Republicans. When the conversation is about Trump, that’s good for Democrats.

Trump doesn’t seem to understand this, but Biden and the Democrats do.

Midterm elections are often a referendum on the incumbent — in this case, Biden.

Instead, Democrats hope to make the election a choice between Biden and Trump — a repeat of the 2020 contest won by Biden.

Biden’s impassioned speech in Philadelphia last week, in which he denounced Trump and “MAGA Republicans” as extremists who are “a threat to this country,” came directly from the president’s 2020 campaign cartoon theme.

“I ran for president because I believed we were in a battle for the soul of this nation,” he said. “I still think it’s true.”

Biden clearly believes those sentiments — but they’re also politically useful for Democrats.

To borrow another Bidenism, he says: Don’t compare his party to the Almighty. compare it to the alternative.

No wonder Republicans want to change the subject.

According to most projections, the GOP still has a better chance of taking control of the House, where a net gain of just five seats would allow them to oust Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

But thanks in part to Trump, Republicans face an uphill battle in the 50-50 Senate, even though they need just one more seat to carry.

In four states where the GOP thought its chances were strong, Trump-backed candidates are running: Pennsylvania (Dr. Mehmet Oz), Georgia (Herschel Walker), Ohio (JD Vance), and Arizona (Blake Masters).

Trump arguably helped Democrats win control of the Senate in January 2021 when he chaotically interfered in Georgia’s runoff election, telling Republicans the voting process was corrupt and their votes would be lost. He may be on the verge of repeating that dubious feat.

If so, Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York will have him to thank.

And Republicans will be left to consider a deeper lesson: Maybe relying on an angry, radicalized base isn’t just bad for the country. It is also bad electoral strategy.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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