Former U.S. President Donald Trump recently addressed 15,000 ardent supporters in Arizona, making his first major public appearance since the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that sought to keep him in office despite having lost the 2020 presidential election.
In 93 minutes of remarks late Saturday, Trump repeated the false claim that the election had been stolen from him and predicted a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential contest, hinting at what political observers already assume: that he is planning a bid to return to the White House.
Trump is expected to hold more rallies in the months leading up to midterm elections in November that will determine control of Congress for the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term in office. In state after state, Trump aims to boost the fortunes of Republicans seeking office who are loyal to him and repeat his claims.
Voters are taking notice.
“He’s going to remain a factor in American politics for the next several presidential terms,” Robert Ellis, a New Orleans-based lawyer who voted for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, told VOA. “And he should remain a factor. He got results while president, and the more we see Biden’s failures, the more we see Donald Trump was correct.”
By contrast, many moderate Republicans and independent voters – who are often pivotal in close elections – aren’t sure the former president’s continued politicking is good for the country or the Republican Party.
Chelsea Jaramillo, an entrepreneur in Denver, is one such independent voter.
“Honestly, I believe his presence hurts the Republican party,” she said. “Even many Republicans seem tired of his bull---- all the hate and blame that don’t benefit anyone but him.”
In his remarks Saturday, the former president attacked his Democratic successor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy and international affairs. He also took gleeful aim at the handful of Republican lawmakers who voted with Democrats to impeach him after the Capitol riot and have either announced they will not seek reelection or face a bumpy road to remain in office.
“They’re falling fast and furious. The ones that voted to impeach, we’re getting rid of them fast,” Trump said.
Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans, said there wasn’t much in the speech he found surprising.
“It was a lot of the same stuff from him,” he said. “But where it got interesting to me, is you could hear the crowd get excited when they perceived Trump was talking about running for president again in 2024.”
A recent Marquette Law School Poll found that 60% of Republican voters believe he should run for president again in 2024.
“That’s more than enough voters to win the Republican nomination,” Collins said, “so it’s a real possibility should he decide to run.”
Brandon Legnion, a New Orleans-based nurse, is open to the idea. His priorities, he said, include the issue of abortion and how America handles the pandemic.
“I don’t believe vaccines and masking are ‘anti-freedom’ like a lot of other conservatives seem to believe,” he told VOA, “but I do think Republican voters are more likely to listen to Trump instead of Biden when it comes to unifying around fighting COVID-19. I’d probably vote for him if he ran in 2024.”
Turning the page
While the large majority of Republican voters say they would vote for Donald Trump if he secured the party’s presidential nomination, some say they hope a different candidate emerges to lead the party.
“Trump’s independent, patriotic attitude, and his work on border control, jobs and our economy, have all earned him a leading voice in our party,” said Republican voter Jerry Bell of Indiana, “but I do feel there should be a new presidential torchbearer in 2024. New blood to repatriate our conservative vision of governance so we can ‘Make America Great!’”
A University of Massachusetts at Amherst poll conducted December 14-20 showed that 71% of Republicans falsely believe Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate – a contention Trump’s critics often refer to as “The Big Lie.”
Trump addressed the label head-on in Arizona on Saturday, opening the rally by declaring, “The Big Lie is a lot of bull----,” to wild applause from raucous crowd.
Legnion sees the focus on the past as counterproductive.
“It’s time to move on,” he said. “To continue to beat past elections to death is not at all unifying for America.”
Helping or hurting?
Whether the former president and his obsession with the 2020 election helps the Republican Party in the midterms and in the next presidential election is a matter of ongoing debate among experts, politicians and voters.
“The sitting president’s political party almost always loses the House of Representatives in the midterm elections during their first term,” explained Robert Collins of Dillard University. “So regardless of Trump’s involvement, you can pretty much bet everything you’ve got that that will happen this year.”
The Senate is less of a certainty, he said.
“While every seat in the House is up for election every two years, only one third of the Senate is,” Collins said. “And among those, probably only five to eight of those seats will be competitive elections. Trump’s impact is more likely to be felt there.”
The prevailing thought among experts such as Collins is that while Trump can generate excitement and voter turnout for Republican candidates who are loyal to him, some of those candidates – including several he lauded at the rally in Arizona – could struggle to win in swing states and districts with a more moderate electorate.
“I’m not opposed to Donald Trump supporting midterm candidates,” said Ronald Robichaux of Tampa, Florida, who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, “but I am fearful he’ll bring up voting irregularities that have thus far been unfounded and that that might turn some voters off. He can’t seem to bury the hatchet.”
Collins suggested less bombast from Trump would be helpful for his political fortunes and those of Republicans more broadly.
“People seem to forget that when Trump’s involved, elections tend to be an up or down vote on Trump,” he explained. “If I was working on his campaign, I’d spend time trying to rehabilitate his image and reign him in. But based on Saturday’s speech, that doesn’t seem to be their strategy,” he said.
Collins added, “So if you’re a candidate running for office in the midterms, all that can be done now is decide if you want to keep your distance from Trump, or if you want to embrace him.”