Many Democrats were quick to condemn former President Donald Trump over news of his indictment and arraignment in New York. But in the week since, the party’s largely been quiet about Trump’s legal issues.
That’s because as tempting as it might seem for Democrats to seize on the former president’s arraignment — or even potential indictments to come — the party has more to gain by speaking to voters’ worries about kitchen table issues, like gas prices, health care, and inflation, than by touching Trump’s legal troubles.
“Legal stories produce a lot of oxygen,” James Carville, the longtime Democratic political consultant and campaign strategist, told me. “This story does not need Democratic politicians and pundits to feed the fire. This fire is raging. Go start another fire.”
If the indictment fire is raging, that’s in large part thanks to Trump himself. Two weeks after news of the indictment broke, Trump’s still trying to make his indictment page-one news, especially to conservative and Republican audiences. He’s given a speech from his Mar-a-Lago home, run digital ads hyping (and raising money off of) his indictment, and sat down for a primetime interview with Fox News to try to spin these charges into positive political capital.
But he’s had mixed success so far. While he’s succeeded in rallying much of the Republican Party’s elite around him, big national stories that cater to the Democratic platform have retaken the national spotlight from him: mass shootings in Tennessee and Kentucky, the expulsion and reinstatement of two Tennessee lawmakers who led gun control protests in Nashville, and conflicting rulings by federal judges over the future of the abortion pill mifepristone have refocused voters’ attention on perennial social issues that go beyond Trump.
The return to prominence of these issues gives Democrats another opportunity to address the issues that helped them win in 2022: gun safety, abortion access, and democratic values.
At the same time, Trump’s efforts create a unique, tempting opportunity for President Joe Biden and Democratic candidates down-ballot: running a campaign against a candidate who has been charged with crimes, and a party that’s seemed to have largely decided those charges don’t matter.
Some grassroots Democrats might want their leaders to emphasize and capitalize on this fact. But political strategists and Democratic party mainstays told me the better political strategy might be to let Republicans twist themselves into knots trying to defend Trump. While Republican candidates rush to defend their leader, Democrats can instead talk up their accomplishments, continue their defense of Social Security and Medicare, and offer a hopeful agenda for four more years of Biden and a renewed Democratic Congress.
“In the entire [presidential] primary that’s going to happen, let the Republicans wreck each other. I think that’s the best strategy for Democrats,” Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who was Howard Dean’s campaign manager in 2004 and a senior adviser to John Edwards during his presidential campaign in 2007, told me. “It’s the same contrast that worked for Biden in 2020 and worked for the party to avoid a massive red wave in 2022. There’s no way this ends well for Republicans.”
Trump and Republicans are already doing Democrats’ work for them
Trump is making sure that as many Americans as possible know that he is at the center of a criminal investigation and trial. He and his allies had been meticulously planning the spectacle of his arraignment after news of it leaked, and his trip from Florida to New York generated the kind of media circus the country hasn’t seen since Trump was in office himself.
There was plenty of speculation in the lead-up to Trump’s arraignment on just what kind of political effect an indictment might have on Trump’s primary chances. Many bet that it would help him in the short term and hurt him in the long term, and polling since then shows that at least the former is true.
Trump was right in betting that being charged with crimes would inspire a rally-around-the-flag effect. Plenty of his potential primary challengers and scores of Republican lawmakers and politicians have defended him, while his support among the Republican base seems to have grown: he’s opened up a wide gap in support with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the potential challenger seen as the biggest primary threat to Trump, according to recent Morning Consult polling.
But that’s coming at an expense: A majority of Americans think he acted illegally and see the charges brought against him as serious, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll taken last week. Half of Americans think he should have been charged with a crime, and Trump is losing support among independent voters, a majority of whom now agree that Trump should’ve been charged with a crime.
Those numbers suggest that Democrats don’t really need to make an effort to try to frame the indictment and ongoing investigations in a negative light: Republicans are already doing that work for them, bringing it up often and using conspiratorial language that only seems to be resonating with the most conservative, MAGA-friendly kind of American.
“There will be 100 percent knowledge that he’s indicted,” Carville said. “There’s not a soul that won’t know, and you can go into the deepest part of Appalachia and they will know that he was indicted.”
There’s not a ton of upside in Democrats talking about the indictment
The White House, and the president, have been handling the news the same way they’ve handled a lot of politically contentious topics: choosing not to comment, and simply ignoring Trump.
That White House strategy might be replicated on the trail when Biden begins to formally campaign for reelection. He and congressional Democrats have plenty to talk about: improving inflation, low unemployment, an array of bipartisan accomplishments, and Republican moves against entitlement spending and abortion rights in the states. The indictment simply falls under the umbrella of character flaws and shady behavior that Donald Trump is already known for, Trippi, who advised the campaign of John Edwards, another indicted former presidential candidate, said.
“It’s the chaos of Trump and the MAGA base of their party, contrasting with Joe Biden and Democrats passing things like the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” he said. “I agree with Biden saying he’s not going to comment on the indictment. Just let it play out.”
Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist and former Republican adviser, meanwhile, said candidates shouldn’t go out of their way to broach Trump’s indictment, unless doing so helps in their individual races. To ignore the charges completely “is implausible,” he told me. “The best way to manage that is to make everything about a contrast, and just hammer home the point that Republicans are on the side of the criminal while the Democrats are trying to actually get shit done.”
Democrats running in competitive House and Senate contests in the coming year should be especially selective in how they engage with Trump’s indictment, Kristen Hawn, a Democratic political consultant who works with swing district Democrats, told me.
“When you really look at these candidates, my advice on this is that you just don’t take the bait,” she said. “I don’t see too much upside in proactively messaging, certainly not changing your campaign in any way. People still want to hear their representatives talk about things that are important to them.”
Those issues are the perennial ones: preserving health care coverage for people with preexisting conditions, lowering drug prices, getting the price of food and utilities down, and preserving access to abortion. “Those are the things that people care about. The thing that keeps them up at night is not the indictment of Donald Trump,” she said. “Those members who are going to determine who holds the majority, at least in the House, would be smart to just continue on that path and not get distracted by all of this Trump stuff. There’s a chance that you alienate some voters by doing that.”
Hawn’s point about potentially alienating voters has some historical precedent with indictments. One of the more recent high-profile campaigns against a candidate under indictment happened just four years ago, when Ammar Campa-Najjar, a progressive Latino, Arab American activist, and former Obama staffer, challenged former Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter during the 2018 midterms. Hunter had been at the center of plenty of scandals, but the accusations that he and his wife misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds and attempted to cover their tracks led to a federal investigation and indictment a few months before Election Day.
The district, California’s 50th, had voted for Trump by double digits, and was rated by political experts as a solidly Republican seat. But the indictment, and the anti-Trump anger sweeping the country in that year’s blue wave, made Campa-Najjar’s challenge more serious. He zeroed in on the indictment to try to go after Hunter’s character and chip away at his Republican support, and made tremendous inroads, but ultimately lost by just 3 percentage points.
“The thing that I would redo in my race is not doubling down on talking about the indictment, because it was already factored in and priced in,” Campa-Najjar told me recently. “People had made up their minds about it. I didn’t need to educate anybody else about it. Everyone knew about it, and there was no way to frame it differently.”
There were other issues to talk about in that contest, just like Democrats have plenty to talk about beyond Trump and his follies, and talking too much about Trump’s indictment risks missing opportunities to persuade undecided and independent voters, he said: “It’s really important for those undecided voters, whether they’re independents or disenfranchised voters who were just turned off from politics, to educate those undecided voters, but not on the issue of the indictment. It’s on the issue of articulating what the president has done, and his historic victories.”