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When then-President Donald Trump went to campaign for then-Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on 4 January, the speech he gave – and the next day’s special election result – was the stuff of nightmares for then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans.
Instead of making a coherent argument about why voters should reject then-candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Trump railed against Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – members of his own party in good standing – for having the temerity to certify then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory after three separate recounts confirming it.
Instead of rallying his supporters to vote in the next day’s special election, he complained that there was “no way” he had lost the state and called the 2020 election “rigged”. Both claims were, of course, false. But there was truth to at least one thing he said the night before Georgia voters handed Democrats full control of Congress.
“I don’t do rallies for other people,” he said. “I do them for me.”
With the former president embarked on a revenge tour and stumping for candidates who won’t be on a general election ballot for more than a year, Democrats are hoping that his obsessive focus on last year’s election will give them a boost in next year’s. But if history is any guide, they’ll need all the help they can get.
Only once since the Second World War has a sitting president’s party gained seats in his first midterm election: that was in 2002, when the GOP made the War on Terror the central election issue just one year after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center.
And yet, this year, Democratic insiders say they aren’t seeing the usual first-year lull of complacency that is usually reflected in off-year fundraising.
Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced a record fundraising haul for the third quarter of 2021: $35.8 million, a full $10 million more than its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
This in itself is not decisive, of course. Twelve years ago, when Democrats also controlled Congress and the White House, the DCCC also bested the NRCC at this point in the fundraising cycle, and it didn’t matter much the next November when the Tea Party-infused GOP gave Democrats a 69-seat “shellacking” (to quote then-President Barack Obama).
But according to Kurt Bardella, an adviser to the DCCC who was a top aide to House Republicans during that ill-fated election cycle, Democrats’ solid fundraising results indicate that donors are awake to the danger posed by a radicalized, Trumpified GOP majority in the House.
“Republicans are making the case every single day for why we need Democrats as a check and balance on them and their efforts to tear down our democracy,” said Bardella, whose disgust with Trump led him to leave the GOP in 2017. “So whether it’s Donald Trump, or people like Greg Abbott, or Ron DeSantis, or Josh Hawley, or Marjorie Taylor Greene, the radical spread of extremism within the Republican Party is a walking fundraising billboard for the Democratic Party.”
Recalling how the GOP trailed in the 2010 midterm money race at this point but ultimately triumphed at the ballot box, Bardella said his mindset now is that “nothing that happens in October of 2021 is going to have any impact on what happens in November of 2022”.
“We live in a world where it is impossible to forecast that far away what we’re going to be talking about and thinking about, what’s going to be a priority to voters and what’s going to motivate them to turn out,” he said. But he added one caveat: The former president remains “the greatest motivating factor” for turning out Democratic votes.
“As long as he is out there, he is doing the Democrats’ job for them in terms of keeping them engaged, keeping them…outraged and determined to defeat Trumpism,” he said. “He is a walking billboard for turning out Democratic primary voters and turning up the Democratic base”.
Another Democratic insider who lived through the 2009-2010 cycle, former DCCC Chief of Staff Adrienne Elrod, said the fact that Democrats’ small-dollar donations have not dried up in a post-2020 electoral environment shows that the “looming threat” of Trumpism “continues to motivate” the Democratic grassroots.
Elrod suggested that the Democratic grassroots are just as motivated by the consequences of the party’s lackluster performance in 2020, which yielded wafer-thin Congressional majorities that have slowed President Biden’s agenda to a sluggish pace.
“Democrats across this country…have come to the realization that we’re just not going to be able to rely on Republicans to join us in any sort of government functions and we’re not going to be able to get them on board on any meaningful legislation,” she explained.
“When it comes to voting rights, when it comes to police reform, when it comes to the Build Back Better Act, and some of those big priorities that…Joe Biden ran on and got elected on…we’ve got to take matters into our own hands, and the way that we’re going to be able to effectively get these big-ticket items passed is to grow the majority”.
But one ex-Republican who was instrumental in helping his former party buck history and gain seats in a midterm election when it held the White House, Lincoln Project founder and former NRCC communications director Steve Schmidt, was bearish on his adopted party’s chances next November.
Schmidt said the coming redistricting process should put Democrats roughly 12 seats in the hole long before voting begins.
Drawing on his experience in the 2002 cycle, when Republicans successfully weaponized terrorism concerns to beat back Democrats, Schmidt said the Democrats have to take a similar tack heading into 2022.
“What the race has to do is to turn in a way that makes it an outlier election, which typically means nationalizing the race around a threat, and of course, the threat is the extremist movement that Trump leads,” he said.
That “extremist movement,” as Schmidt calls it, still takes its cues from the former President of the United States.
And right now, the former President is picking things up right where he left off in Georgia last January.
In a statement released by his political action committee last week, Trump – who still claims to have won the 2020 election despite all evidence to the contrary – told his supporters to stay home unless GOP officials somehow “solve” non-existent voter fraud problems.
“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ‘22 or ’24,” the former president wrote. “It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do”.
Bardella called the former president’s latest missive part of “a pattern of behavior” that can help Democrats.
“Trump’s own narcissism is an act of self-sabotage for the Republican Party,” he said. “When the elections are about Donald Trump, Republicans lose, and we saw it in 2018 midterms, we saw it in the 2020 general election, and we saw it in the special senatorial election in earlier this year in Georgia – a narcissistic egomaniac, he’s and he doesn’t care if he brings down the entire Republican party with him.
“Donald Trump is proving that he in some ways, is one of the best circuits for the Democratic Party’s hopes to maintain and grow their majority in 2022”.