In 2022 midterms, Trump and possible GOP rivals test the waters for 2024 presidential race

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WASHINGTON – Aspiring presidential candidates have often used midterm elections to assess their chances in national elections – but no White House wannabes have faced what the Republicans are dealing with in 2022.

The reason is Donald Trump.

No ex-president has injected himself into midterm elections the way Trump has in 2022. No ex-president has used primaries and congressional elections to boost his chances of running again for the White House he lost just two years ago – and no ex-president has operated like this while under criminal investigation.

That creates an unprecedented political environment for other Republicans who are using the midterms to test the presidential waters. Candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are handling the midterms in more traditional ways – giving speeches, endorsing candidates, raising money, collecting IOUs – but all Republicans to some extent are operating in the shadow of  Trump.

"They're walking a tightrope," said Andrew Busch, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California who specializes in the politics of midterm elections. "They're trying to prepare themselves to run. At the same time, they're trying to hold their fire with Trump."

The non-Trump Republicans must find a way to handle a former president who has remade the GOP in his own image – also an opponent who is in danger of indictment, another unique feature of this historically odd presidential chase.

"Retired presidents almost always fade into the shadows, and defeated former presidents even more so," Busch said.

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Trump's gambit

While lesser-known candidates try to steer around Trump, the former president is holding one or two rallies a week for favored candidates. He's also preparing to take full credit if things go well for the Republicans this fall – and to cast blame if they don't.

Either way, Trump is putting his political clout on the line in the 2022 midterms.

"He's trying to to reinforce his notion that he is still the leader of the Republican Party," said Busch, author of "Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences."

That image could take a hit in November. The Republicans are very much at risk of losing ground in the U.S. Senate, thanks to the weaknesses of Trump-backed candidates in key states: Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona, J.D. Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

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Every one of those elections count. The Senate is divided 50-50, with Democrats in control because of the tie-breaking vote that belongs to Vice President Kamala Harris.

The prospect of a bad showing partly explains another Trump midterm activity: attacks on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. For months, Trump has suggested that McConnell will be to blame if Republicans lose ground in the Senate.

When McConnell raised questions in August about "candidate quality," Trump shot back: "Why do Republicans Senators allow a broken down hack politician, Mitch McConnell, to openly disparage hard working Republican candidates?"

More recently, Trump said McConnell is failing to negotiate good deals and that must mean he has a "death wish," a comment some interpreted as a physical threat. Spokesman Taylor Budowich said Trump was referring to a political death wish, and said that "McConnell is killing the Republican Party through weakness and cowardice."

In theory, 2022 should be a very good year for the Republicans, analysts point out. The president's party, in this case the Democrats, usually lose congressional seats in midterm elections.

Many Democrats believe they will defy that trends and pick up congressional seats, in part because of Trump's hold on the party.

"What’s the Republican platform to run on?" Biden said in an interview with CNN. "What are they running on? What are they for?"

Pence, DeSantis, other contenders

All the while, Trump has cast a giant shadow over other possible Republican presidential candidates, most notably Pence and DeSantis.

In a sense, Pence, DeSantis and others are doing the traditional things that any presidential aspirant does: visiting early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, creating political action committees, writing books, making speeches and endorsing like-minded candidates in the midterm elections.

Each also faces unique challenges regarding the former president.

Pence, who is thinking of becoming the first former vice president to run against the president who picked him as a running mate, has to deal with anger from Trump and some of his supporters.

They are still mad at his refusal, in his capacity as president of the Senate, to throw out electoral votes that made Biden president. Pence said he lacked the legal authority to strike down electoral votes, a message he consistently delivers on the campaign trail.

"I was not afraid, but I was angry," Pence writes in a forthcoming memoir that looks suspiciously like a campaign book. "So Help Me God" is to be published on Nov. 15, a week after the midterm elections.

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DeSantis, meanwhile, has focused most of his campaign season on his own reelection bid in Florida on Nov. 8.

The first-term governor, who raised his profile in clashes with the Biden administration over COVID-19 policies and immigration, has campaigned for other midterm Republican candidates, including some of the Trumpiest of the bunch. He has helped fellow gubernatorial candidates, including Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Kari Lake of Arizona, both election deniers who want to make massive changes in state voting systems.

Casey DeSantis, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, first lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden walk to meet with local residents impacted by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 5, 2022.
Casey DeSantis, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, first lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden walk to meet with local residents impacted by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 5, 2022.

In one sense, DeSantis is taking a very traditional midterm approach for a presidential aspirant: Trying to roll up as impressive a re-election win as possible, in in his case against former Democratic congressman and former Republican governor Charlie Crist.

This is a well-worn path; In 1958, Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., went all out for a landslide reelection win, laying the groundwork for his successful 1960 campaign. Texas Gov. George W. Bush did much the same thing in 1998, using his easy reelection to bolster his run for the presidency in 2000.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has faced a more pressing problem: Helping Florida recover from the ravages of Hurricane Ian.

Other GOP hopefuls

Behind Pence and DeSantis – and Trump – are a gaggle of Republicans who are traveling the country gauging their chances at a presidential race. Their primary goal right now: letting people know who they are.

They include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

During a September visit to New Hampshire – site of the first presidential primary – Pompeo did not exactly deny he is thinking of a presidential campaign: "I'm here, it's not random ... We are doing the things that one would do to be ready to make such an announcement ... It'll be a handful of months."

Haley has created a political action committee, endorsed candidates and written books, the latest of which is ambitiously entitled "If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women."

Breaking news often attracts presidential wannabes. This month, a pair of potential Republican presidential candidates – Cotton and Scott – visited Georgia to help Walker, the Senate candidate embattled over abortion payments and domestic abuse allegations.

Under investigation

As they all assess their own chances in 2024, they are also sizing themselves up against Trump – and all of his legal unknowns.

Trump is under investigation in Atlanta and Washington over efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden, especially in Georgia; his removal of classified documents from the White House; and his alleged incitement of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

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An indictment and trial of an ex-president – or multiple indictments and multiple trials – would change the 2024 presidential election in ways that are unfathomable in the midterms of 2022.

Other Republicans can't help but wonder whether the long list of credible allegations will take their toll on Trump when it comes to voting time and give them an opening to upset the narrative of 2024.

"For the most part, no Republican wants to cross Trump," said political scientist Lara Brown, author of "Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants." "But at the same time, they are all aware of his growing legal troubles and the waning popularity of his 2020 grievance message."

Brown said no ex-president has pursued a delayed reelection like this since Grover Cleveland's successful campaign in 1892 and Theodore Roosevelt's failed bid in 1912 – and both were back when conventions picked nominees.

"There weren’t meaningful primaries, and so the presidential aspirants’ sharp elbows and power plays happened mostly in the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms," Brown said. "Today, the process and the politics are far more transparent – from travel schedules to tweets, we see which presidential aspirants are supporting which midterm candidates."

The Nixon model

There is a model for Trump, Pence, DeSantis and all the rest: Richard M. Nixon.

During the 1966 midterm elections, six years after losing a presidential race and four years after losing a California gubernatorial race, Nixon raised millions for GOP candidates and campaigned in more than 100 congressional districts during the election cycle. Nixon also picked up IOUs that paid off with his comeback win in the 1968 presidential race.

Nixon also seized the chance to fill what was then a vacuum of leadership in the Republican Party. The party's previous presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, withdrew from national leadership after his landslide loss in 1964, creating a vacuum that Nixon sought to fill.

There no vacuum at the top of the Republican Party right now.

Rick Gates, an adviser to Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, said Trump is "going to have to work through a gamut of excuses" if the Republicans fare poorly in November.

Gates predicted that the Republicans will do well in the House and Senate races, and that Trump will take full credit for it heading toward the 2024 presidential election – after which the entire process starts again.

"The 2028 race will start in 2026," Gates said, "if not sooner."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump, GOP rivals use 2022 midterms to prep for 2024