(Bloomberg) — Former President Donald Trump has demanded that the US somehow re-run the 2020 election he lost. President Joe Biden is doing everything he can to oblige him.
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The current president, who has struggled to tame inflation at a 40-year high, has delighted in an opportunity to turn the midterm congressional elections into another referendum on his twice-impeached predecessor. And Trump has eagerly made himself the center of the campaign, to the chagrin of many Republicans.
In speeches and rallies across the country over the last two weeks, Biden and Trump have slugged it out as if they’re contesting the White House, not Congress. Trump has even shadowed Biden’s appearances, rallying four days after the president in Pennsylvania last week and in Ohio next weekend. Biden visited the Columbus area on Friday.
The 2022 election season kicked off with Republicans poised to take control of at least the House thanks to voter outrage over high prices. But it’s instead becoming a battle between two men: Biden and Trump.
Biden’s sharp attacks on Trump and so-called “MAGA Republicans” — a reference to the former president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — for threatening American democracy have broken through with an increasing number of voters, even as some vulnerable Democratic incumbents have occasionally fretted about the president’s tone.
Roughly two in ten registered voters in an August NBC News poll named “threats to democracy” as the most important issue facing the country, more than the 16% who named cost of living. It’s an improbable turn of events, as economic issues are typically top of mind for voters.
“If the election in the final 60 days is not viewed as a referendum on the president and the party in power, Republicans are leaving opportunity on the table,” said Ken Spain, who oversaw House Republicans’ communications strategy in the 2010 midterms, when the GOP won a majority.
While Trump’s involvement in the election excites his supporters, Spain said, he turns off independent voters and also energizes Democrats, hurting Republicans by shifting the the focus of the campaign from Biden, inflation and other issues favorable to the GOP.
Earlier: Biden Rallies Democrats With Attack on Trump and His Supporters
Biden has repeatedly hit Trump over his false claims the 2020 election was stolen and his effort to overturn his defeat, culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. He delivered a Sept. 1 prime-time address from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall dedicated to the threat Biden believes Trump and his supporters still pose to the country, and the president went after his predecessor again Thursday at a Democratic National Committee event in Maryland.“Extreme MAGA Republicans just don’t threaten our personal and economic rights; they embrace political violence. They refuse to accept the will of the people. They threaten our very democracy,” Biden said. For his part, Trump has called Biden an “enemy of the state” and said the president’s Philadelphia address was “the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president.”Trump’s opponents repeatedly criticized him as president for divisive speeches and racist rhetoric intended to appeal to his mostly White base.
As Biden has sharpened his attacks on Trump and his followers, prospects for his party in the midterms have brightened. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in Congress because its supporters are less motivated to vote than opponents angry about the president’s policies.
But landmark legislative victories by Biden and congressional Democrats, divisive Trump-aligned Republican candidates and voter outrage at the Supreme Court’s decision to end nationwide abortion rights have improved Democrats’ chances of holding onto their Senate majority and at least narrowing their losses in the House, according to election forecasters.
Six in 10 registered voters surveyed in an August Wall Street Journal poll said abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 56% said the Supreme Court ruling makes them more likely to vote in November. Biden has said abortion access is just one of many rights Trump acolytes would try to strip across the country if they return to power.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards,” Biden said in his Philadelphia speech.
Going after Trump helps voters understand that issues like abortion, voting rights and entitlement programs could be at stake if Republicans win control of Congress, said Danielle Melfi, executive director of the pro-Biden outside group Building Back Together.
“As we know from the data, it’s really important for us to not just tout the accomplishments but also to make sure we’re driving a clear contrast with the extreme MAGA agenda,” Melfi said. “They’re pursuing their undermining of our democracy to achieve their really unpopular policy goals.”The current and former president’s campaign appearances have sometimes come in tandem, as if Trump seeks to counter-punch his opponent.
Trump announced a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the day after the White House said Biden would hold an event there, and the former president set a rally in Ohio for Sept. 17 after the White House announced the president would visit the state for an Intel Corp. semiconductor factory groundbreaking. Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich, however, said the timing is a coincidence.
Along with abortion, Trump’s continued involvement in national politics has loomed large over the November elections. The former president’s endorsed Senate candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona, several of whom have echoed his false claims of a stolen 2020 election, have struggled to raise money and gain traction against Democratic opponents. The federal investigation into classified documents at Trump’s Florida estate and his impending decision whether to seek another term in 2024 have also riled Democratic voters.
The subject that garnered the most outrage from registered voters in a new Yahoo! News/YouGov poll were efforts to overturn the 2020 election, with 41% saying it made them angry. That’s more than the percentage of voters who said they were angry with Biden’s response to inflation (32%) and the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach (28%).
A focus on a Trump-Biden rematch and the former president’s obsession with the 2020 election — a topic he frequently mentions at rallies — hurts Republican candidates in competitive midterm races who have to answer whether they agree with Trump, said Mike DuHaime, a former Republican National Committee political director.
“In the races where they focus too much on the past and on Trump, they’re going to lose,” DuHaime said. “In races where they can keep the focus on Biden and on a referendum on Democrats in Congress, they’ve got a much better shot to win.”
The shift in political dynamics does not guarantee Democrats will keep control of Congress in November. The Cook Political Report, an election-forecasting publication, still rates the Senate a tossup and projects Republicans taking a narrow majority in the House. Pluralities of voters in opinion polls continue to rank the economy and inflation among their most important concerns.
And Trump’s attacks on Biden on the campaign trail will motivate Republicans to cast ballots, an important factor in midterm elections when turnout is historically lower than presidential contests, said GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin.
“You want to make sure you’re turning out every single Trump voter you can,” McLaughlin said.
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