Former President Trump’s decision to skip the first Republican presidential primary debate is fueling Republican angst that his rivals will have little opportunity to catch up to him in the polls.
Many senior Republican officials and strategists in Washington think Trump would be a weak candidate in the general election and have an uphill path to beating President Biden in 2024.
But there’s also a growing sense among Republican lawmakers and other party leaders that Trump may have wrapped up the nomination months before the Iowa caucuses, despite facing 91 felony counts and four criminal trials.
This in turn has left them worried about their chances of defeating Biden despite his weak approval ratings and of taking back control of the Senate despite this cycle’s favorable electoral map.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting insurrection, predicted over the weekend that Trump “will lose to Joe Biden” and declared “if President Trump ends up getting the nomination but cannot win the general, that means we will have four more years of policies which have led to very high inflation.”
Reflecting broader GOP pessimism among Republicans about Trump’s chances of winning the White House next year given his unpopularity with independent and women voters, Cassidy said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump should drop out of the race.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, told a group of Texas reporters in May that Trump couldn’t win the general election.
“What’s the most important thing for me is that we have a candidate who can actually win,” he said. “I don’t think President Trump understands that when you run in a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is running for governor in his home state, on Monday danced around questions about Trump’s electability and touted entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy as a candidate who would present a tough challenge to Biden in 2024 and help turn around the country’s fiscal problems.
Asked by CNBC anchor Joe Kernen if Trump could win the general election, Braun said that Democrats are helping him in the primary by pushing politically motivated prosecutions because they think he would be a weak candidate in November 2024.
“I think whatever they try politically through the indictments and so forth, that strengthens him, not weakens him,” he said of the multiple indictments against Trump.
When Kernen noted that Democrats think Biden can beat Trump, Braun acknowledged, “They are tabulating it that way.”
Trump’s calculation that he can skip the debate without feeling any repercussions is fueling GOP concerns that he faces little serious competition in the primary. They worry it will be even harder for other candidates to catch him in the polls if they don’t have a chance to confront the front-runner on stage before a national television audience.
“It does make it more difficult in part because they won’t have nearly the audience that they would have if Trump was there and the whole game would be how those candidates stand up to Trump, whether they are directly critical of him,” said Steven S. Smith, professor emeritus of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Smith said the debates are more likely to change the trajectory of the race if Trump actually shows up.
“It’s not obvious to me that Trump would do well in a debate. He’s riding so high that it’s entirely possible that he would lose his temper, ultimately look very unpresidential and it could very well be that the other candidates would effectively beat up on him,” he said.
While polls show Trump is dominating the rest of the Republican presidential field, Republican voters aren’t happy about his decision to skip Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee and declare the race effectively over.
A new poll by Firehouse Strategies, a public affairs firm, and 3D Strategic Research found that two-thirds of Republican primary voters want to see Trump on the debate stage.
The poll found that Trump’s supporters are even hungrier to see him battle his Republican opponents face to face — 77 percent of them said he should participate in the debate.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies, said Trump is employing “the classic frontrunner strategy of not giving the opposition oxygen.”
“Going on the debate stage is going to give the other candidates a chance to take him on directly,” he said. “He figures he could skip at least the first two debates and not suffer in the long run.”
Conant said if one of the other candidates emerges through the debates as “the primary alternative to Trump,” then “you could see Trump’s lead cut very quickly.”
He said Trump’s strategy is to make that tougher by staying away and likely limiting the size of the national television audience.
He acknowledged, however, that Trump will be very tough to beat in the primary because of his huge lead in the polls and the fact that the 50 percent of the GOP electorate not currently supporting his campaign are deeply split over whom they would prefer.
“Anyone who is looking at the polls recognizes that beating Trump at this point is very difficult. You look at where we were six months ago when Donald Trump was in the thirties, there was one obvious alternative and there was a real sense that the party was ready to move on,” Conant said, referring to what appeared to be a more competitive race between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier this year.
“Here we are less six months from actual voting and Trump is as dominant as ever. The only candidate with any momentum in this race is Trump,” he said. “That said, the debates haven’t started, Trump’s legal woes are unprecedented, and there remains interest in an alternative just none of these [other] candidates have broken through.
“That’s what debates are for,” he said.
Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, told Newsmax that Trump’s decision to skip the debate “is really going to put the spotlight on … the fact that this ‘DeSantis reboot 4.0’ is not going so well.”
A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll of likely Republican caucus voters released Monday found that Trump’s lead over DeSantis has grown by 5 points since his indictment in Georgia last week on 13 criminal charges related to trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the state.
The poll found 42 percent of likely caucusgoers plan to support Trump while 19 percent say they support DeSantis.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R), who represents Iowa, which will host the first contest of the 2024 presidential primary season, told The Hill last month that Trump should participate in the first debate.
“Yes, he should. I think all of our Republican candidates need to express their views on the topics that are really important not just to Iowans but to all Americans,” she said.
Conant, the GOP strategist, said Cassidy’s view that Trump will likely lose to Biden is shared more broadly by Republican officials and strategists in Washington.
“People are tired of losing and we lost three straight elections with Donald Trump leading the party and there’s concern his standing with independents hasn’t gotten any better,” he said.
Smith, the political scientist affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis, said he’s surprised that not more Republican senators have joined Cassidy in calling on Trump to drop out of the race given the drag his legal problems put on his viability as a general election candidate.
“I’m surprised more Republicans have not said that already,” he said, arguing that Trump’s legal problems are “obvious baggage that congressional Republicans do not want to carry into an election next year.”
“If the party’s entire reputation is wrapped up in Trump — and who knows what his legal status will be [before Election Day] — that’s just the kind of uncertainty that Republicans want to avoid,” he said.