The Trump factor

Former president’s influence could be a boost or detriment to the GOP cause

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; iStock)

Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot, but the former president is one of the major stories of 2022. His dominance of the Republican Party and his potential influence on voters will be felt through the election year. Whether that helps or hurts his party is the question.

The first signs will come during the primaries. Trump has made numerous endorsements, and he claimed an early success when J.D. Vance won the GOP primary for Senate in Ohio after seeing his support rise when he got the Trump stamp of approval. The following week, he gained a split decision, as his candidate in a House GOP primary in West Virginia won easily while his endorsee in the Nebraska gubernatorial primary, who had been accused of sexual improprieties, was defeated.

In Pennsylvania, where he endorsed Mehmet Oz for Senate, the May 17 Republican primary has been too close to call, as Oz holds a very narrow lead over David McCormick that is within the margin for a recount. On May 24, Trump’s kingmaker status was challenged in Georgia as his favored candidates for governor and secretary of state lost primaries. He has made picks across the country, in congressional, state legislative and even down-ballot contests in the states.

Some traditional Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have tried to counter Trump in some races while succumbing to the former president’s endorsements in others. How well Trump’s candidates fare in these intraparty contests and eventually in November will have a major impact on his own reputation heading toward 2024, as he says he is considering another run for president.

Trump still commands intense loyalty from the Republican base, which is why most GOP candidates are either mimicking Trump’s views or avoiding a direct clash with him. They know that they need enthusiastic support from Trump’s supporters to be successful.

“You’ve got a Trump electorate for whom the election is about revenge as much as anything else,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “The ongoing anger of Trump voters is a really key element in terms that could drive a high turnout among them.”

But the Trump factor cuts two ways, especially if Democrats can manage to make the former president and his “Make America Great Again” movement a polarizing presence in the national debate. Garin said that in most midterm elections, the party that holds the White House tries to say the election is a choice, not a referendum, but that it generally is a referendum on the president and his party.

LEFT: Trump still commands intense loyalty from the Republican base. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Supporters of Donald Trump talk, dance and take pictures before the former president arrives at a rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

"Where it might be more of a choice than midterm elections often are is whether people feel like it is too risky to turn the keys over to the MAGA Republican Party, given Trump’s influence and given how extreme many of the main figures in the party have become,” he said.

Republican strategist Russ Schriefer said the issue mix could make that difficult. “Elections tend to be about things that are current and what people are concerned with at the moment,” he said. “This year is probably going to be very much an economic frame with inflation leading the way, particularly with gas prices. If that is what it’s about, Trump becomes less of a player.”

But the possible decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, based on the leaked draft of an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito, puts a volatile issue in the center of the debate, offering Democrats a greater opportunity to make the election a choice.

Where Democrats could find Trump to be an asset is in the number of GOP candidates who have bought into his “big lie” about 2020, leaving them potentially vulnerable in the general election. Republican strategists privately fret that candidates focused on relitigating the 2020 election two years later could cost the party Senate seats.

This is not only the case in high-profile races. In Michigan, the state Republican convention recently put forward candidates for attorney general and secretary of state who have embraced Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

The former president will be thrust into the spotlight in June when the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol holds public hearings and begins to lay out in more detail the role Trump and those closest to him played in attempting to subvert the 2020 election. While Jan. 6 is not seen as a significant issue for most voters, it remains a defining event in Trump’s past and could shape his future.

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About this story

Illustrations by Lucy Naland based on photos by Demetrius Freeman, Jabin Botsford, Nitashia Johnson and Craig Hudson, graphics by The Washington Post and additional imagery from iStock.

Story editing by Philip Rucker. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba. Project editing by Jay Wang. Design and development by Tyler Remmel and Jake Crump. Design editing by Madison Walls. Graphics by Chris Alcantara. Graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Additional editing by Rachel Van Dongen, Ashlyn Still and Jenna Johnson.