THE CAMPAIGN THAT WASN’T ABOUT TRUMP. A rumor swept through the political world Monday that former President Donald Trump would announce his 2024 candidacy at an election-eve rally in Ohio for Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance. It didn’t happen. But it attracted a lot of attention, certainly among the politicians, staffers, consultants, journalists, pundits, and other obsessives who make up the political chatter world. They watched the rally not to hear what Trump might say about the midterm elections, but about his own plans.
What was remarkable was that, instead of being the kickoff of the Trump 2024 campaign, the Ohio rally showed how little Trump has been a factor in the midterm general election campaign. Yes, he played a sometimes decisive role in Republican primaries. But in the general election, when voters choose who will serve in office, Trump wasn’t a big part. “If you look at the advertising in the swing states, Trump is not mentioned,” noted one Republican strategist closely involved in the campaign. “Warnock, Kelly, Cortez Masto are not talking about him in their ads.” That was a reference to incumbent Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, all in seats the GOP hopes to take.
Months ago, some Democrats had sought to make the whole midterm campaign about Trump, in the hopes that his unpopularity with between half and two-thirds of the electorate would sink Republican chances of taking back either the House or the Senate. Indeed, at times, the entire work of the Democratic-picked House Jan. 6 committee seemed about keeping Trump under constant attack, and in negative news reports, throughout the campaign season.
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There was a weird confluence of the Democratic plan and Trump’s wishes. Democrats wanted the election to be about Trump. So did Trump. The only players who did not want the campaign to be about the former president were the Republicans actually trying to win House and Senate seats to take control of Congress.
But inflation, and a precarious economy in general, intervened in everyone’s plans. So did the Supreme Court, with its decision overturning Roe v. Wade. So did rising crime rates. So did the Biden-created disaster on the U.S.-Mexico border. And then, an even more fundamental factor emerged: Midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power, especially the president. Unpopular presidents such as Joe Biden — job approval rating 42.1% in the RealClearPolitics average of polls — lose House seats in midterm elections. The only question is how many, and Democrats did not have many to lose.
Trump faded as a factor in the campaign. Even when the Justice Department raided the former president’s home in Florida, looking for documents allegedly held in violation of the Presidential Records Act, the flurry of Trump talk — it mostly benefited Trump, whose supporters saw it as yet another example of him being unfairly targeted by the FBI — did not turn into a dominant issue in the campaign.
That left Trump in an uncomfortable position, for him — not at the center of the political universe. Thus there were recurring stories throughout the campaign, leaked by people around Trump, that Trump planned to announce his 2024 candidacy soon. That would certainly make everything about him. Perhaps the announcement would come during the midterm campaign, perhaps right before, perhaps after, but soon.
The talk drove Republican candidates and strategists crazy. They wanted their campaigns to be about Biden and the Democrats who currently control both House and Senate. They wanted the midterm elections to be a traditional judgment on the party in power. With Biden so unpopular, they sensed victory. They did not want Trump barging in and trying to make things about himself.
The GOP strategist quoted above said that in recent weeks, he heard insider talk that Trump would announce his candidacy on election eve, Nov. 7. Then he heard talk that the announcement would come after the election, on Nov. 14. “The idea has been rolling around for three weeks,” he said.
There had also been talk that Trump would announce even earlier. If that had happened, the strategist said, he would have been furious, “just flat, nuclear, pissed off,” as he put it. If Trump had done it on election eve, the effects would not have been as bad, he noted, but it still would have stepped all over the Republican Party’s final message. News coverage would have been “Trump’s in. Happy Election Day.”
Other Republicans saw equally negative effects. “If Trump announces tonight,” tweeted Georgia conservative Erick Erickson on Monday, “the media coverage tomorrow will overshadow the entirety of the GOP’s closing midterm message and give the GOP someone to blame if they underwhelm at the polls.” On the other hand, Trump ally Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted on Monday, “Trump deserves all the credit for this wave election and announcing tonight he will seize it.”
In the end, Trump did not go forward with the election-eve plan. Instead, he told the crowd in Ohio that he will make a “very big announcement” next week. “I’m going to be making a very big announcement on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida,” Trump said. “We want nothing to detract from the importance of tomorrow.” And that was Trump’s final statement in a midterm campaign that turned out not to be, as Democrats had once hoped, all about him.
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