A report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month stirred excitement among Donald Trump’s fans in Georgia that the former president would return to the state for a rally to help his friend Herschel Walker’s Senate bid.
It also set off alarm among Republican leadership in a state that Trump lost in 2020. Many were wary of reopening the old feud between Trump and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is also on the ballot. Others were concerned that Trump’s continued talk of rigged elections could depress turnout.
A subsequent phone call between Trump’s team and the Walker campaign focused on the best time and place for a third Trump visit to Georgia this election cycle, according to three people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal confidential discussions. While no final decision has been made, the proposed date came and went last month with no Trump event.
The lack of a rally last weekend broke Trump’s streak of five rallies in the preceding four weeks, which had been part of an aggressive push to boost his endorsed candidates in the midterm. Now his advisers are asking Republican campaigns if they want rallies in the final stretch to Election Day. The plans remain fluid, with discussions of three, four or more rallies in states such as Georgia, Ohio, Iowa and Pennsylvania. The ongoing talks reflect his team’s desire to be cooperative and helpful, but also a recognition that there are limits to where Trump can be beneficial.
“We aren’t going anywhere we are told they don’t want us,” a Trump adviser said. “If you’re trying to drive out independents and suburban moderate women, he’s probably not your best option. But he can drive out the MAGA crowd, and if he’s not involved, some of those people won’t vote.”
The ex-president and presumptive 2024 front-runner hasn’t returned since the primaries to the top battlegrounds of New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and there is no indication he plans to go there to offer a boost to Senate hopefuls in tight races that could decide control of the upper chamber.
Instead, Trump’s next rally will be this Saturday in the Republican stronghold of Texas, which lacks a Senate race this cycle. The highest-ranking Republican on the ballot, Gov. Greg Abbott, will miss the event, citing an existing commitment to raise money in Florida. The event will feature Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and Rep. Michael Cloud (R), who isn’t in a competitive race. There are other competitive congressional races in the nearby Rio Grande Valley and across the state where Trump’s rally and media coverage of it could help energize Republicans.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the former president is the party’s foremost asset this cycle.
“President Trump continues to be the leading voice in growing and energizing the Republican Party by introducing millions of new voters to his endorsed candidates and energizing voters who usually sit out midterms,” Budowich said in a statement. “At this point, the entire Republican Party, from fundraising, to data, to get-out-the-vote, is on Donald Trump’s shoulders and together they will deliver massive GOP victories come Nov. 8.”
Planning for a Trump rally in Georgia is especially sensitive since many Republicans in the state blame him for costing the party two Senate seats and control of the chamber in runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021. Trump’s false claims that he lost Georgia because of massive voter fraud were seen as depressing Republican turnout by convincing his supporters their votes wouldn’t count.
In the primary, Trump endorsed a challenge to Kemp and, at a 2021 rally in Perry, Ga., went so far as to say Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams “might very well be better” than the sitting Republican governor.
“Trump coming down to Georgia is the worst thing that can happen for Republican candidates down here,” a GOP operative in the state said. “It immediately turns the focus from inflation and immigration to Donald Trump, and Donald Trump lost the last election here. … We have a pretty tight window to get Hershel across the finish line on election night, and Trump would undermine that.”
Georgia Republicans’ concern is less about alienating moderates who don’t like Trump than it is about Trump discouraging the Republican base from early in-person and mail voting, according to one of the people familiar with the discussions about keeping him away from Georgia. Trump’s rally speeches typically include an instruction to vote in person on Election Day only. But GOP operatives say discouraging early voting creates risk that some number of voters will not end up making it on Election Day.
These operatives believe Trump wants Republicans to vote only on Election Day so that he can claim fraud when GOP candidates who appear ahead on Nov. 8 wind up losing when all votes are finally counted. That phenomenon, known as the “red mirage,” occurs in states where unofficial Election Day vote totals are posted ahead of the tallies of early in-person and absentee ballots. More Democrats have voted early or absentee in recent cycles, while Republicans have tended to dominate Election Day voting, which often is counted more quickly.
“The party is deeply concerned and the consultants around the party are concerned about suppression,” the person said.
Walker embraced Trump in a debate on Oct. 14, saying he would support him for another presidential campaign in 2024. “Yes, I would, and let me take — President Trump is my friend,” Walker said. “Has nothing to do with that he’s my friend, I won’t leave my allies.”
Trump’s team views the rallies as an effective way to mobilize Republican turnout in the midterm, with a special focus on Trump supporters who didn’t vote in the previous midterm elections. At the five most recent rallies, more than half of the people who registered were first-time attendees, according to data collected by Trump’s PAC, and an average of 38 percent did not vote in 2018, based on matching their registration information to the state’s voter file.
Still, there are signs that Trump’s rallies aren’t the draw they used to be. The Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, had a section of empty bleachers in the back shortly before Trump took the stage there on Sept. 17. Trump’s stop in Nevada on Oct. 8 at the Minden-Tahoe Airport had just over 10,000 people go through the security screening, according to airport director Bobbi Thompson. For comparison, when Trump came to the same spot in 2020, the crowd was about 20,000, based on the number of coronavirus tests administered, Thompson said.
Trump’s rally on Oct. 9 in Mesa, Ariz., drew about 4,000, according to an estimate from city police. When he appeared near that location in October 2018, the crowd was estimated at 6,000, according to a spokesman for the venue, the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Trump routinely opens his speeches by marveling at crowd sizes and berating the media for not showing the audience.
An additional challenge in scheduling Trump rallies this cycle is that the return of concerts and other large in-person gatherings after the pandemic is making venues scarce. Trump can only appear at locations that meet certain specifications for capacity and security, and the events have become more formal and professional than the more improvised early days of the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s aid to Republicans this cycle isn’t limited to rallies. A new super PAC run by Trump allies has bought airtime totaling more than $8.9 million attacking Democratic Senate candidates, according to data from media tracker AdImpact. The ads that have aired so far attack Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio on ties to Democratic leaders, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania on crime, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada on inflation, Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona on immigration and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock of Georgia on all of the above plus “drag queen story time.” The ads don’t feature Trump’s name or likeness.
“There’s an understanding of what needs to happen in order for the candidate who he endorsed from the beginning to be successful where they are now,” a person familiar with the strategy said. “It’s about getting to 50 plus one.”
Trump is also planning 12 to 15 more tele-town halls before the election. He’s held telephonic events in recent weeks for Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano and House candidates Jim Bognet of Pennsylvania, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert of Ohio and Eli Crane of Arizona.
Trump is a polarizing figure, viewed favorable by 42 percent of Americans but 81 percent of Republicans, according to a New York Times-Siena poll this month. Republican candidates in swing states who won their primaries with Trump’s help, such as Nevada gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo and Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, have since downplayed their closeness with him and his positions as they run toward the middle. But they still appeared with him at rallies earlier this month in their respective states.
The potential downsides of Trump’s involving himself in a race were on stark display this week in Colorado, as Republicans scrambled to keep the party united behind Senate nominee Joe O’Dea after Trump posted to his Truth Social network, “MAGA doesn’t Vote for stupid people with big mouths.”
A crowd of other Republican leaders — many of them eyeing presidential runs in 2024, such as former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley — are also out campaigning with candidates in the midterms. Some of those surrogates, while lacking Trump’s wattage, can help candidates with their efforts to broaden their appeals beyond Trump’s base. Walker, for instance, had campaign stops this week with American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
Republicans are also quick to point out that most Democrats are not eager to campaign with their own party’s unpopular standard-bearer.
“Any candidate or any potential candidate, and that would include President Trump, that would include Vice President Pence, that would include Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Tim Scott — some of them have been here, some of them have not yet, but all are welcome,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. “I can tell you one person I don’t expect to be here, that I would like, and that’s Joe Biden.”
Budowich, the Trump spokesman, said other surrogates don’t measure up to Trump. “If a candidate wants to appeal to 5 percent of the electorate, they campaign with Mike Pence,” he said. “When they want to win an election, they rally with president Donald Trump.”
Some Republicans dismissed the risk of campaigning with Trump since Democrats are attempting to tie them to the former president anyway.
“To take no benefit and just take the negative, that’s crazy,” said Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who advises Abbott. “You don’t unilaterally disarm. The idea that President Trump cannot excite people is nuts.”
Dylan Wells and Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.