In the wake of the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago estate, Donald Trump has boosted his fundraising, fired up his conservative supporters and helped vanquish Liz Cheney, arguably his biggest Republican foe.But the former president’s return to the fore of America’s political stage, with a barrage of seething rhetoric and under a cloud of serious legal trouble, risks blunting the Republican party’s advantage heading into the midterm elections by alienating swing voters at a time when it was already showing signs of ebbing.“He’s inflaming our politics continually, and it’s inflaming Republicans but also inflaming Democrats,” said Michael McDonald, a political-science professor at the University of Florida. “If he just stepped back . . . Republicans would have been in a much better position than they are right now. But he’s still exerting himself.”The Mar-a-Lago search has coincided with two disturbing trends for Republicans who hoped to ride a “red wave” into November that would comfortably allow them to regain control of the House of Representatives and Senate on the back of high inflation and president Joe Biden’s low approval ratings.Democrats have for the first time this year taken the lead in the generic congressional ballot, according to the average of polls assembled by Realclearpolitics.com, after trailing since last November.Republican candidates backed by Trump in crucial Senate races are also unexpectedly underperforming their Democratic rivals — to the point that the Republican Senate leadership fund announced it would plough $28mn into television ads in Ohio to rescue the lacklustre performance by JD Vance, the venture capitalist author turned pro-Trump conservative in the state.“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different, they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” Mitch McConnell, the top Republican senator, conceded on Thursday.The Democratic bounceback has much to do with renewed energy on the left in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutional right to an abortion in June. It has also been helped by the fact that petrol prices have also been gradually falling throughout the summer.Further, Trump’s overwhelming influence and continued presence in Republican politics is allowing Democrats to turn what would normally be a referendum on Biden’s performance into another “choice” election, like it was in 2020.“You have a lot of Republicans who are going to follow Trump’s lead,” said McDonald. “That didn’t happen everywhere, but it happened in enough places, so that we now have candidates who are moving forward in general elections, and they’re unpopular.”“Part of it is that they’re extreme, and part of it’s that they’re incompetent. Part of it is that Trump still is looming large. And so I think the January 6 hearings, and then the raid on Mar-a-Lago just underscored that Trump is damaged goods for most of the country,” he added.Still, the former president is ploughing ahead with plans to launch his bid for a second term in the White House in 2024, undeterred by the possibility of a criminal prosecution — or the anxiety that his continued presence at the centre of the political debate is triggering for some Republican leaders and donors.“In his mind, he was already in. It was going to be before the midterms. Do I think this raid will change anything? No,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign adviser who now works for Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying firm in Washington.Many of Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination have rushed to his defence after the Mar-a-Lago search, potentially chilling their own embryonic plans to make a bid for the White House.But Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican operative who is chief political strategist at “Ready for Ron” — a political action committee supporting Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, for a presidential run — said they are not putting their plans on the back burner.
“We are 100 per cent committed to drafting and electing Ron DeSantis in 2024. Ron DeSantis is the best choice to carry the America first agenda forward,” Rollins said.Some of Trump’s staunchest backers in conservative media have also suggested the former president might not be a shoo-in for a second term and could hand over the baton.“Donald Trump’s been a friend of mine for 25 years, and I’m always very open about this on my show. But, you know, we’ll see whether that’s what the country wants,” Laura Ingraham, a Fox News television host, said on a podcast this week.“The country, I think, is so exhausted. They’re exhausted by the battle, the constant battle, that they may believe that, well, maybe it’s time to turn the page if we can get someone who has all Trump’s policies, who’s not Trump.”Lanza said that possible Trump rivals within the Republican party would still expose themselves to a huge backlash by challenging him.“They’re going to be asking themselves if they have the internal gumption to go forward. They’re going to be analysing their position and I think they’re going to get to the position that when Trump attacks you, you’re dead, politically. Ask Liz Cheney. Ask the Bushes”.