The indictment against Donald Trump in the federal Jan. 6 probe is just the latest set of charges threatening to eclipse his Republican primary opponents as they struggle to gain traction against the former president in the polls.
Tuesday’s indictment has given Trump another opportunity to turn his legal woes into a campaign spectacle. This has left the other candidates having to figure out how to respond without giving Trump even more oxygen, while at the same time trying to make headlines of their own.
Adding to the challenge is the prospect of yet another indictment against Trump, in the Georgia 2020 election case, which could further enhance his loyalty among the GOP electorate.
“It’s a net positive every single time because it thrusts him back to the top of the news cycle as a martyr,” one Republican strategist said. “The base is certainly energized by having a fight to engage. They see the DOJ and the Biden administration as waging a war against the former Republican president.”
Trump’s campaign was quick to blast out a fundraising email following the indictment, writing that the prosecutors in Trump’s numerous legal cases are after his supporters.
The move was the same as the one taken by the former president’s team and supporters following his first and second indictments, when they used the legal issues as fundraising mechanisms and campaign stops.
On top of that, Trump has sucked up much of the media’s attention as a result of his legal woes.
“It’s an enormous challenge for every campaign, particularly those who are reliant on earned media,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “They all are to one degree or another.”
Merrill noted that the dynamic is somewhat similar to that during the 2016 Republican primary where Trump, a political newcomer at the time, dominated media coverage.
“Candidates then found it was difficult to break through the all-Trump-all-the-time campaign,” Merrill said. “The opponents this time find themselves in a similar situation where they’re running their own campaigns, campaigning on their own issues and they’re finding themselves being asked questions about Trump.”
Happening in tandem with Trump’s legal woes are those of President Biden’s son, Hunter. Republicans have used both stories to argue that there is an inherent unfairness in the way Republicans and Democrats are treated by the Justice Department.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any Republican who thinks there isn’t some double standard being set by the powers that be,” the Republican strategist said. “The Bidens and Clintons somehow skirt real punishment, yet it seems as though Trump is under constant scrutiny from governmental entities, right or wrong.”
Candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) criticized the indictment as being politically motivated. DeSantis echoed his calls to “end the weaponization of the federal government” in a statement, while Scott noted what he said there were “two different tracks of justice” for Trump and Hunter Biden.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy sought to make headlines of his own following news of the third indictment by suing the Department of Justice and filing Freedom of Information Act records request for more details about the indictments.
But some Republican strategists argue that it’s time for the 2024 Republicans who aren’t Trump to start making the argument that the former president may not be electable next year.
“It seems to me that if you want to beat Trump, you have to take the fight to him,” said Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based GOP strategist. “You have to begin to make an electability argument.”
“The fact is we have to focus on winning. We did not win in ’18 we did not win in ’20 and we underperformed in ’22,” he added.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has taken this approach, saying in interviews that Republican primary voters need to move on from Trump and the legal drama surrounding him.
“While I think he was the right president at the right time, you know, earlier, and while I think his policies were good, I don’t think he’s the right president at the right time going forward,” Haley told CBS News last week. “I think we’ve got to move forward. Otherwise, we will have a general election that’s doing nothing but dealing with lawsuits.”
Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence finds himself in a particularly tough spot given his pushback against Trump on Jan. 6 and the fact that he is considered a key witness in the case. But following Tuesday’s indictment, Pence maintained that he had no right to overturn the 2020 election results as vice president and that Trump’s legal advisers just told him what he wanted to hear.
“Sadly, the president was surrounded by a group of crackpot lawyers that kept telling him what his itching ears wanted to hear,” Pence said.
Despite Haley urging GOP voters to move on and Pence maintaining that Trump’s actions on Jan 6 were wrong, neither of them, or any of the other candidates for that matter, have been able to leapfrog the former president in the polls.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this week showed Trump leading the field with a whopping 54 percent of the vote. DeSantis came in second with 17 percent support and no other candidate was able to garner more than 3 percent support.
Other Republicans warn that if candidates go the electability-argument route, they need to make sure the issue does not end up defining them or their campaign.
“You can’t let it hijack the reason for you running for president,” the GOP strategist said. “It can’t just be you’re not that guy. You have to make the case for why you deserve it, not the case against somebody else.”