Republican leaders and the vast majority of the party’s rank-and-file members are betting they are better off with former President Donald Trump than they are without him heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
Mr. Trump is a double-edged sword for the GOP, mustering a fiercely loyal base but also energizing ferocious opposition from Democrats, left-leaning news media and anti-Trump Republicans. Embracing him is a high-stakes gamble that will make or break the party’s chances of flipping control of the House and the Senate next year.
Congressional Republicans for the most part are appeasing Mr. Trump by lining up against the creation of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The opposition from GOP senators, which is enough to kill the bill, has enraged Democrats and a faction of Republicans who say it underscores the former president’s iron grip on the party.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s insults — is among the commission naysayers. The Kentucky Republican, echoing the concerns of his colleagues, warned that such a commission would be a “purely political exercise” aimed at muddying the GOP heading into the midterms.
But Olivia Troye, director of an anti-Trump group called the Republican Accountability Project, said the push to kill the commission could come back to haunt the party in the midterms. She said it will help unify anti-Trump Republicans and other voters concerned about national security.
“So, yes, it is a goldmine for Democrats, but I would say they underestimate that this is a unifying cause for those of us who care about our country, and that is going to be everybody from Republicans to independents and Democrats,” Ms. Troye said.
A spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee said the opposition against the Jan. 6 commission is indicative of a large issue for Republicans.
“Donald Trump is still an anvil around their neck,” the spokesperson said. “There is no positive vision the Republican Party is presenting because they are beholden to Trump and the more extremists part of the party.”
Legal troubles also could be brewing for Mr. Trump in New York, where the state attorney general and the Manhattan District Attorney are conducting a criminal investigation into his business empire.
Mr. Trump has dismissed the probe as a “witch hunt” and an attack on the MAGA movement.
Republicans, meanwhile, say Mr. Trump’s record of accomplishment exposes the failures of President Biden and the Democrats calling the shots on Capitol Hill.
“Lower taxes, stronger border security and better trade deals are electoral winners, and we are going to continue highlighting the transformative America First policies that President Trump enacted,” said Michael McAdams, spokesperson for the National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans. “All you need to do is look at the ongoing crisis along our southern border to see Democrats are willing to do whatever they can to roll back his accomplishments, even if it hurts the American people. Voters will hold them accountable in 2022.”
Mr. Trump’s grasp on the Republican Party was on display this month after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and most rank-and-file members ousted Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her No. 3 spot in leadership after she refused to dial down her criticism of Mr. Trump and his promotion of the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election.
Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York was tapped as her successor. Ms. Stefanik had the blessing of Mr. Trump — helping insulate her from concerns about her conservative credentials and moderate voting record.
Mr. Trump followed that up by pressuring GOP leaders to torpedo “the Democrat trap of the January 6 Commission.”
“It is just more partisan unfairness and unless the murders, riots, and fire bombings in Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, and New York are also going to be studied, this discussion should be ended immediately,” he said. “Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left.”
“Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” Mr. Trump said.
The commission proposal passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 252-175 vote.
The final tally included 35 “yea” votes from Republicans, including 10 that voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Capitol mayhem.
The fate of the plan will be decided in the Senate, though the politics of the issue is expected to live on whether it survives the upper chamber or not.
Polls show most Republican voters are more aligned with Mr. Trump when it comes to the Jan. 6 commission and his insistence that the election was stolen.
Mr. Trump touted a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released this month that “shows 53% believe Donald Trump is the true President (I always knew America was smart!). 2020 Election was tainted 56%. The Election was stolen (and Rigged!) 61%.”
The poll also found that 63% of Republicans want him to run for president in 2024.
That could create a conundrum for Republicans running in competitive House and Senate races because the rest of the electorate is far less willing to embrace Mr. Trump’s allegations and far less excited about him making a political comeback.
The Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found that 75% of all voters — including 97% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 78% of the independents surveyed — said Mr. Biden was the true president.
Nearly two-thirds of independents agreed that Mr. Trump was partly to blame for starting the “deadly Jan. 6 riot.”
Mr. Trump and his allies are now seeking revenge against those GOP lawmakers, increasing the likelihood that the events of Jan. 6 could become a litmus test in primary races across the country.
“The Republicans who voted for the January 6 commission are literally traitors to their party,” conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza said on Twitter. “They don’t deserve tolerance or understanding, only contempt. They are what Lincoln called the ‘fire in the rear,’ more dangerous than Copperhead snakes. Primary every one of them!”
The X-factor in the House races this fall will be what the congressional districts look like after state legislatures across the country redraw them based on the 2020 census.
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to strike a balance between making Mr. Trump part of the discussion, while keeping the focus on Mr. Biden’s record of accomplishment such as the vaccination program that’s helping people get back to work and back to normal life.
They don’t want to turn the election into a referendum on the former president because they don’t want to help energize his supporters, who’ve shown a penchant for not showing up in pre-election polls, according to a Democratic operative.
They also say an imperative to defending the House and keeping control of the Senate will be fielding strong candidates in competitive races across the country — and Mr. Trump could help on that front.
“Jan 6 is the kind of seismic event that atypical political candidates see and feel the call to serve whether they are veterans, business leaders or just folks in the community who say I need to step up, it’s my time to serve,” said Cole Leiter, a Democratic strategist who previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans.
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