Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated by former President Trump’s renewed focus on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot, fearing that it will jeopardize their midterm plans to retake Congress.
Only a few months ago, Trump was bragging about his administration’s success with coronavirus vaccines. However, in recent weeks, he has shifted his focus back to the 2020 election and the insurgency, claiming that former Vice President Mike Pence could have “overturned” the election and floating pardons for the rioters.
That red meat rhetoric is expected to play well with Trump’s hardcore base, but Republicans say it is ineffective at attracting the swing voters the GOP needs this November, especially with President Biden’s low approval ratings blowing wind in the GOP’s sails.
“In the current political climate, it doesn’t make sense to me.” While almost every Republican on the ballot wants to talk about the present and future, inflation, the economy, schools, and parents, he appears to be focused on the past,” said GOP strategist David Kochel. “It just gets in the way of what Republicans are doing right now.”
Republicans have cringed for more than a year over Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the Capitol riot, which failed to overturn President Biden’s 2020 victory. However, Trump’s bombast has increased in recent weeks.
Trump recently suggested that Pence could have unilaterally “overturned” the Electoral College results when Congress met to certify them last year, that imprisoned rioters are being treated “so unfairly,” and that prosecutors investigating his efforts to overturn the election should be protested.
Recent reports fueled the fire by alleging that Trump was involved in plans to seize voting machines and submit phony electors to Congress.
Some Republicans have retaliated, primarily by defending Pence, but Trump has retaliated forcefully, even labeling longtime ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a “Republican in name only.”
Even Trump supporters have expressed displeasure with the former president’s bluster.
“I always think President Trump should be talking about the unprecedented policy accomplishments that he and his administration had over the four years he was in office,” one former Trump administration official said. “I don’t think it’s productive to spend time rehashing the 2020 election.”
Trump received rare praise from Republican critics, the media, and even some Democrats about a month ago when he emphasized the coronavirus vaccines. He made national headlines after a heated interview with conservative provocateur Candace Owens in which he claimed that “the vaccines work” and that people who “get very sick and go to the hospital” are unvaccinated.
Republicans argue that given that the shots were developed during Trump’s tenure, the message could be powerful.
That rhetoric, however, largely faded as he emphasized last year’s riot. Observers attribute the pivot to a president who has a history of failing to stay on message. They also claim he is sensitive to the increased activity of the special House panel investigating the insurgency, as well as criticism from his base, which includes prominent anti-vaccine activists.
That erratic rhetoric comes at a time when Republicans are optimistic about flipping both chambers of Congress this year and are wary of anything that could throw candidates off message on issues such as inflation, mask and vaccine mandates, and foreign policy.
However, Trump remains the party’s leader, and while Republicans remain heavy favorites to win at least the House this year, having the party’s most powerful voice divert attention away from the Biden administration’s difficulties has fueled concerns about how many seats Republicans will win.
Beyond 2022, operatives believe that focusing on the insurgency will hurt Trump if he runs for president again in 2024. Trump received more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, but growing deficits with Biden in the suburbs doomed his campaign.
Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton in suburban counties by about 5%, which was attributed in part to voters rejecting Trump’s character and was critical to winning states like Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.
Expanding beyond his die-hard base will thus be critical if he runs again, but Republicans warn that talking about the insurgency may not be the best way to win over suburban defectors.