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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Rally with Trump? Some GOP candidates aren’t thrilled about it.

Former President Donald Trump takes the stage in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3, 2022, to rally support for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate candidate. As candidates try to appeal to general-election voters this fall, the former president’s political power is entering its own stormy winter.

By Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman

Former President Donald Trump is preparing to swoop into Ohio on Saturday to rally Republicans behind J.D. Vance in a key Senate race. Two weeks ago, he did the same for Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

Neither candidate invited him.

Instead, aides to the former president simply informed the Senate campaigns that he was coming. Never mind that Trump, while viewed heroically by many Republicans, remains widely disliked among crucial swing voters.

The question of how to handle Trump has so bedeviled some Republican candidates for Senate that they have held private meetings about the best way to field the inevitable calls from his team, according to strategists familiar with the discussions.

This awkward state of affairs reflects the contortions many Republican candidates are going through as they leave primary season behind and pivot to the general election, when Democrats are trying to bind them to the former president.

In New Hampshire, Don Bolduc won the Republican Senate nomination Tuesday after a primary campaign in which he unequivocally repeated Trump’s false claims of 2020 election fraud. Just two days later, he reversed himself, telling Fox News, “I want to be definitive on this: The election was not stolen.”

Some of Trump’s chosen candidates, after pasting his likeness across campaign literature and trumpeting his seal of approval in television ads during the primaries, are now distancing themselves, backtracking from his positions or scrubbing their websites of his name.

The moves reflect a complicated political calculus for Republican campaigns, which want to exploit the energy Trump elicits among his supporters — some of whom rarely show up to the polls unless it is to vote for him — without riling up the independent voters needed to win elections in battleground states.

In North Carolina, Bo Hines, a Republican House candidate who won his primary in May after proudly highlighting support from Trump, has deleted the former president’s name and image from his campaign site. A campaign official described the move as part of an overhaul of the website to prioritize issues that are important to general-election voters.

But Trump’s endorsement remains prominent on Hines’ social media accounts. Reached by phone, the 27-year-old candidate said he planned to attend a Trump rally in the state next week and then cut short the call.

In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, the Republican nominee for governor, erased from his campaign homepage the fact that Trump had endorsed him — but then restored it after the change was reported, saying it had been a mistake.

“The optimal scenario for Republicans is for Trump to remain at arm’s length — supportive, but not in ways that overshadow the candidate or the contrast,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and a former top aide at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Donovan, as well as consultants and staff members working for Trump-backed Senate candidates, said the former president could be most helpful, if he chose, by providing support from his powerful fundraising machine.

“A big part of the problem is that these nominees emerged from messy fields where the party has been slow to unify,” Donovan said. “But to fix what ails, what these GOP candidates need isn’t a Trump rally, it’s a MAGA money bomb.”

Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for Trump, said in a statement that the former president’s “name and likeness was responsible for the unprecedented success of the GOP’s small-dollar fundraising programs,” and that he continued to “fuel and define the success of the Republican Party.”

Budowich added, “His rallies, which serve as the most powerful political weapon in American politics, bring out new voters and invaluable media attention.”

But linking arms with the former president could create problems for candidates in close races.

Even though he has been out of office for nearly 20 months, Trump has remained a constant presence in news headlines because of mounting criminal and congressional investigations into his role in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, his refusal to hand over sensitive government documents that he took to his Florida home and whether he and his family fraudulently inflated the value of their business assets.

On Thursday, when asked about the possibility of his being indicted in the document inquiry, Trump told a conservative radio host that there would be “problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before.”

Polls suggest these controversies could be taking a toll. Among independent voters, 60% said they had an unfavorable view of Trump, compared with 37% who had a favorable view, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week. President Joe Biden was also underwater among these key voters, but by a far smaller margin of 8 percentage points.

Asked whether Trump had “committed any serious federal crimes,” 62% of independent voters said they believed he had, and 53% said he had threatened American democracy with his actions after the 2020 election.

Republican candidates appear to be aware of such sentiments, backing away from Trump’s fixation on the 2020 election. While he has said that election fraud is the most important issue in the midterms, polls show that voters are far more worried about economic issues and abortion rights.

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