The Race Trump Can’t Disappear Behind

For much of 2023, Donald Trump’s political campaign was defined by the criminal charges he faces in four jurisdictions. Republicans reacted, the former president went to arraignments and the coverage on television was often wall to wall.

The cycle of events created a sense of motion for a front-running Republican candidate seeking another term in office who was, in fact, speaking fairly infrequently in public compared with his previous campaigns. That impression cushioned him from, bluntly, himself — limiting the self-inflicted wounds he made by giving relatively few interviews and holding relatively few rallies.

But as Trump has moved closer to becoming the Republican nominee, such a cushion has become harder to maintain. There is barely a primary race for him to disappear behind. And as the race shifts to a new phase, he is creating hurdles his allies wish he would avoid.

Take his recent comments about mail-in voting and early voting.

“If you have mail-in voting, you automatically have fraud,” Trump said to the Fox News host Laura Ingraham this week. When Ingraham pointed out that mail-in voting exists in Florida, a state where Trump lives and which he won, he pressed again. “That’s right, that’s right. If you have it, you’re going to have fraud,” he said.

It’s a message he delivered again in Nashville before an audience of Christian broadcasters on Thursday night. Mail-in voting is rife with fraud, he insisted.

“We no longer have Election Day, we have election periods, some of them last for 45 days,” Trump said ominously. “And what they do during those 45 days is very bad. A lot of bad things happen.”

That’s completely in keeping with his repeated false claims that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread fraud, despite the fact that dozens of judges have ruled against his perspective and his claims were never substantiated.

But it runs counter to efforts by both Trump and his aides, around one year ago, to soften his attacks on mail voting. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in March 2023, Trump said it was time to “change our thinking” on early and mail-in voting, a reflection that the party needed to start banking those kinds of votes in order to win.

That’s a message that people like the all-but-certain outgoing chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, has been espousing for many months. So has Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, whom he has endorsed to be the next co-chair of the national party.

Appearing at this year’s CPAC, Lara Trump said this week that embracing early voting is an imperative for Republicans.

“The truth is, if we want to compete with the Democrats, we cannot wait until Election Day,” she said. “If we want to compete and win, we must embrace early voting. The days of waiting to vote until Election Day are over.”

Since being indicted, Trump has not appeared interested in adhering to that message. His attacks on mail-in voting have distressed top Republicans since mid-2020, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted changes in what various states allowed in terms of absentee ballots and mail voting.

At the time, the House Republican leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy, said he had tried to warn Trump that he was damaging himself with his attacks.

“You know who is most afraid of Covid? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy told Axios, recalling a conversation he had with Trump.

There have been other reminders of a less disciplined Trump along the way. When he declared that he wanted to work on repealing the Affordable Care Act, it caught his advisers by surprise, especially given the law’s popularity and his own disastrous efforts to unwind the health law before. Democrats immediately highlighted the statement.

Then there is the issue of Trump moving toward becoming the de facto Republican nominee, and his political world expanding in the process.

On Friday, an ally of Trump announced a new super PAC that is going to be supported by the former president’s friend — Ike Perlmutter, the billionaire and former chief executive of Marvel Entertainment. It will air ads in the general election. Trump has blessed the new group, even though it isn’t clear how it will function alongside the existing super PAC that has been backing him for months.

So far, Trump’s campaign has been professionalized and disciplined, controlling what it can and generally doing its best to limit the things it cannot.

But the realities of the new phase of the race mean an often-uncontrollable candidate is going to be more visible, and calling more of his own shots behind the scenes.

When Nikki Haley ran for governor of South Carolina in 2010, one of her early campaign stops was the Aiken, S.C., living room of Claude and Sunny O’Donovan.

Claude O’Donovan, 85, the co-founder of a local Tea Party group, had invited Haley and other candidates to make their cases to the conservative activists of Aiken County, a heavily Republican enclave.

“We fell in love with her,” he said. “She was a dynamite gal.”

A digital picture frame in the O’Donovans’ home still displays a photograph of Haley at the meeting. But tomorrow, when Haley faces Donald J. Trump in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, both of the O’Donovans plan to vote for Trump.

“I think he has the values of the Tea Party,” Sunny O’Donovan, 84, said. “It was for the people, and I see Trump as being for the people.”

Recent polls show Trump leading Haley by 36 points in South Carolina. A decisive loss would move the Republican nomination further out of reach and provide a painful coda to her political career in her home state. A Trump win in South Carolina would also write the final chapter of one of the most important political stories of the last decade: the story of how Trump entered politics amid a transformative grass-roots movement and then absorbed that movement into his own.

In the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Tea Party movement channeled outrage over bank bailouts and right-wing animosity toward the new president and his policies into a wave of midterm triumphs. The party went on to win Republican majorities in Congress and statehouses across the country and minted a new generation of political stars, including Haley.

Years later, initially skeptical Tea Partiers embraced Trump, who, as candidate and president, offered a supercharged version of the movement’s antipathy toward immigrants, fear of a changing country and anti-establishment fervor.

“The kind of folks that were Tea Party in 2010 are part of the MAGA movement in 2024,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and director of the Winthrop Poll. “We owe all this to the Tea Party.”

Today, few of the original Tea Party organizations remain. But their former dominance, and dissolution into Trump’s camp, goes a long way toward explaining how South Carolina abandoned its once-favorite daughter for a former Democrat from New York.

Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley’s campaign, defended the former governor’s movement credentials. “Just like when she ran for governor, Nikki is the outsider, conservative candidate,” she said in a statement.

But even some once-dedicated supporters have moved on.

“Yes, he’s the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving,” Jane Page Thompson, a co-founder of Claude O’Donovan’s Tea Party group, said of Trump. “But right now America needs the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving — not the snowflake niece.”

Charles Homans

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