How Trump’s Legal Problems Could Affect Down Ballot Republicans

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 3, 2023 · 1:39 PM EDT

Even if legal problems don’t hinder former President Donald Trump’s political comeback attempt, they could hurt other Republican candidates on the ballot in 2024. 

Republicans won’t have to reckon with the electoral ramifications of Trump’s indictment for now. But much of the short-term analysis (or more specifically, the overall Republican response) to Trump’s reported 34-count indictment by a Manhattan grand jury is lacking and could prove to be politically shortsighted.

One of the core GOP arguments in defense of Trump is that the investigation is a politically driven charade by District Attorney Alvin Bragg. That could be both true and help Trump fire up his supporters, but it says nothing about the former president’s innocence. 

To put it another way, an investigation can be political and the accused be guilty. Partisan politics by the other party is not an excuse to conduct crimes.

Investigations conducted by the new GOP majority in the House into various aspects of President Joe Biden’s family and administration are politically driven, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the accused Democrats are innocent of wrongdoing. Similarly, Republicans’ criticism that Bragg and other law enforcement officials aren’t sufficiently prosecuting other crimes doesn’t mean Trump is innocent.

There are other aspects of the GOP defense that will be tougher to replicate if Trump is indicted in the other three cases where he faces an investigation. 

Some Republicans are dismissing the accusations in the so-called hush money case as old news, since the alleged affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels happened more than 15 years ago and the alleged payment happened more than six years ago. Once again, that doesn’t mean Trump is innocent or that it’s not relevant (since the underlying episode potentially aided his 2016 victory), but that argument doesn’t hold as much weight in the other three cases, which all focus on events that happened within the last two-and-a-half years. 

Republicans also frame the hush money case as unfair harassment over paperwork. That argument won’t be easily applied to the effort to prevent the ratification of the 2020 presidential election, the effort to convince Georgia election officials to give Trump the state’s Electoral College votes, or any attempt to thwart the return of classified documents. (OK, I guess that last one is a case of a lot of paperwork.) 

In general, one veteran GOP strategist questioned the wisdom of Republicans responding and defending Trump against charges they haven’t seen. The indictment has been sealed up to this point. There could be a lot of Republicans walking back their statements from last week if the charges aren’t as expected. This could also be a lesson to how Republicans respond to any future indictments.

Downballot Effect
The political fallout from Trump’s legal problems could reach beyond his own candidacy. 

Because of a high correlation between presidential results and House and Senate outcomes, if Trump struggles to match his 2016 or 2020 performances because of legal problems, then Republicans will have a harder-than-usual time of winning the Senate majority and may lose the House majority. 

But there’s another potential complication for Republicans before the November 2024 balloting. 

One or more Trump trials will be a media spectacle. It will be difficult for Republicans to cut through the legal noise to push their own campaign messages, and candidates may be forced to respond to a steady drip of news coming out of the courtroom. There will be no shortage of testimony, evidence, and revelations to be commented on, potentially for days, weeks, or months.

Gaining attention can be difficult for congressional candidates, particularly in presidential years. Trump on trial in one or multiple courtrooms would be an additional huge obstacle, particularly for House candidates. 

If candidates have already responded to the initial Trump indictment, then they’ve created the expectation that they’ll comment on future Trump legal issues. It could be a vicious cycle that doesn’t end for months.

At a minimum, Trump’s legal problems and his feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been a distraction from Biden. At 43 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove, the president’s job rating is the worst it’s been in two months, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Republicans should want an election focused on an unpopular incumbent and not their legally-challenged nominee.

Choppy Waters Ahead
Multiple GOP strategists emphasized that these are uncharted waters for campaigns. 

Campaigns tend to have a “past is prologue” mentality by looking at a past cycle to plan for a future race. But this is nothing anyone has ever seen before. 

Even though the New York indictment may be firing up Trump’s base of supporters, it’s certainly not clear Trump is gaining with independent voters, which he and candidates aligned with him would need in the general election — and which the GOP failed to win over in the last three election cycles. 

And it’s not clear what might happen if the indictments start to stack up. Even if Trump’s supporters think he is innocent, they could look for an alternative if it looks like Trump won’t beat Biden. That’s the effect DeSantis is hoping for.

For those GOP members on the Hill or candidates around the country who think issuing a statement about the New York indictment will be the last campaign decision around Trump’s legal troubles they’ll have to make this cycle, they’re likely in for a rude awakening.