On Monday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis issued the fourth indictment of former President Donald Trump this year, this time for activities related to Trump and associates’ attempts to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia. Have any of Trump’s presidential primary opponents who might have an actual chance of winning the GOP nomination taken this opportunity to attack Trump?
Not really, no. Trump leads FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average by nearly 40 percentage points ahead over the second-place candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Yet much like after the first three indictments, it’s been the unmistakably anti-Trump candidates with little chance of victory who have mainly dinged Trump over the Georgia indictment. By comparison, the candidates who might have even a remote chance of defeating Trump — those with high favorability numbers among Republicans — largely eschewed attacking the front-runner and went after the legal system instead.
Potentially competitive contenders mostly focused their ire on the supposed weaponization of the legal system against Trump. “I think it’s an example of this criminalization of politics,” said DeSantis, who also expressed skepticism about the use of Georgia’s anti-racketeering statute to pursue alleged crimes related to political activity. Following a federal indictment of Trump on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election earlier this month, DeSantis raised some eyebrows by stating publicly that Trump had lost the 2020 election — something he had long avoided doing. And following the Georgia news, DeSantis did reiterate that he would be a stronger pick than Trump to win in 2024 and implement “America First” policies. But DeSantis’s initial reaction to the Georgia indictment, which broadly addresses Trump’s behavior over the 2020 election result, suggests that he’s not looking to make a dramatic shift in his rhetoric.
Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who have both sometimes polled in the double digits, also echoed earlier comments about the further politicization of the legal system. At a town hall Monday night, Ramaswamy described the Georgia charges as “politicized persecutions through prosecution,” having earlier in the day said he would volunteer to write an amicus brief in support of Trump. Ramaswamy has previously said he would pardon Trump, and filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June seeking documents from the Department of Justice relating to the decision to indict Trump. At the Iowa State Fair, Scott called the latest indictment “un-American,” arguing that the law was “being weaponized against political opponents.” In June, Scott had described the Justice Department’s indictment of Trump over alleged mishandling of classified documents a “serious case with serious allegations,” but also that the legal system was targeting Republicans. For his part, lower-polling North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum offered a milder version of the same rhetoric, arguing that the fact “people are worried about a two-tiered system of justice” is “a bigger issue than any indictment.”
Of course, it’s entirely understandable why these candidates have once again avoided hitting Trump over his legal troubles. Winning the GOP primary will require threading the needle of attracting support from a mostly pro-Trump party without alienating Trump-supporting voters by criticizing Trump. Attacking Trump brings few positives, whereas proximity to Trump in a world where he’s not running would be an asset. A June survey from YouGov/CBS News found that, if Trump couldn’t be the nominee, 74 percent of Republican primary voters would prefer a nominee “similar to Trump,” while only 26 percent said they’d want someone “different from Trump.” Additionally, two-thirds of Republicans don’t think Trump’s loss in the 2020 election was legitimate, so the specifics of the federal and Georgia indictments regarding his actions to overturn the election don’t necessarily hold much sway with primary voters.
Moreover, while there are some signs that Trump’s favorability has ticked down in the wake of his indictments, he remains quite popular with the party base. His net favorability among Republicans in recent polls is about +50; only DeSantis is close to him on that score. Granted, candidates like Scott and Ramaswamy aren’t nearly as well-known as Trump or DeSantis, which may allow for a higher ceiling of potential support.
Turning to the more anti-Trump or Trump-skeptical contenders, former Vice President Mike Pence has been more critical recently, and his initial comments after the Georgia indictment had a similar tone. On Wednesday, Pence rejected the notion that the 2020 result in Georgia was stolen, although he also employed a line he’s used in the past by noting Trump still has the “presumption of innocence.” Nonetheless, Pence’s reaction comes on the heels of his sterner comments earlier this month after the federal indictment regarding Trump’s 2020 actions. Pence said that Trump pressured him “essentially to overturn the election” and argued that anyone who put himself “over the Constitution” shouldn’t be president.
Beyond Pence, the vocal anti-Trump candidates in the race mostly echoed their previous denouncements of Trump, too. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the latest indictment was further evidence that Trump had “disqualified himself” from holding the presidency again, while former Texas Rep. Will Hurd said it was “another example of how the former president’s baggage will hand Joe Biden reelection if Trump is the Republican nominee.” In a departure from his responses to earlier indictments, though, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s initial comments on the Georgia indictment mostly focused on how he viewed it as “unnecessary” given the federal charges Trump faces (which Christie said he didn’t think were “political” at the time). Still, this was a far cry from the weaponization language used by other Republicans who haven’t embraced an anti-Trump posture.
As for the two major candidates we’ve yet to discuss, both former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez have sought to steer something of a middle path. Haley has yet to make a public remark about the Georgia indictment,1 but ahead of the expected charges, she tried to avoid sharp criticism of Trump by mostly sticking to a line that Trump’s legal troubles distract from the many important issues facing the country. Somewhat similarly, Suarez said on Wednesday that the latest indictment is a “victory for Washington” that continues to dominate the news even though he felt voters weren’t interested in it.
All in all, the latest indictment of Trump has not prompted any of his rivals to pivot in how they approach Trump’s dominant position in both the news and in the Republican primary. None of this is going away, however. For the foreseeable future, the rest of the GOP field will have to continue to decide how to address Trump’s legal issues within the context of their own presidential aspirations.
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