WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has inserted himself into the Republican primaries this week in Pennsylvania, much to the chagrin of some GOP members there, who think he may have picked the wrong candidates and needlessly shuffled the race.
Democrats, however, aren't so sure they've got a problem with the former president making himself an outsize figure in the races there or nationwide, as they try to leverage his divisiveness to their advantage in yet another election.
Democrats are largely still trying to settle on exactly what role Trump should play in their campaigns as they defend razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate this fall.
But there is a growing acknowledgement that leveraging voters’ lingering distaste from the Trump years may be among their best strategies for turning out their voters in November, particularly with their policy agenda falling short in areas like lowering the cost of prescription drugs and passing voting rights legislation.
President Joe Biden has begun inserting references to Trump in his public remarks without calling him out by name, calling him “the great MAGA king” and “the other guy,” and describing Republicans as “ultra MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
Vulnerable congressional Democrats use a similar strategy on the campaign trail: Talk about Trump without ever uttering his name.
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., who was trapped in the House chamber when a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, said she’s been speaking to voters back home about the threats to democracy, decency and bipartisanship posed by Trump and his MAGA allies.
“I’m not sure his name ever passes through my lips.”
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa.
But she added: “I’m not sure his name ever passes through my lips.”
“Single-handedly, he is the reason we can’t get anything done in this town in terms of working on a bipartisan basis,” Wild told NBC News. “And I frame it in the context of the complete and utter disregard for the rights of ordinary human beings, everybody that doesn’t fit into his little narrow MAGA-acceptable framework.”
She called Trump a “big player in Pennsylvania,” especially in this year’s Senate and governor races. But Wild said she didn’t view the 45th president as “particularly helpful” to the Republicans vying to challenge her in her Lehigh Valley swing district.
Wild took issue with Trump attacking Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., for voting for the bipartisan infrastructure package, calling it a “travesty.” McKinley lost his GOP primary last week to fellow Rep. Alex Mooney, who had been endorsed by Trump.
“So I talk about that kind of thing,” Wild said, “but I don’t talk about him as a person because, frankly, it’s not worth my breath.”
Trump has been working to make himself a factor in the elections as he remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party. Several of his endorsed candidates have won primaries and he has continued to hold his campaign-style rallies across the country. He enjoys touting his endorsement track record. It's no secret he's considering running again for the White House in 2024.
For Democrats, talking about Trump doesn't come without a risk. In the 2021 Virginia governor's race, the Democrat spent more time — and money — drawing attention to Trump's endorsement in that race. He lost.
There has been debate inside the Democratic Party since Trump’s arrival on the scene in 2016 over how much to make him the focus of their message to voters — and the debate continues.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for Donald Trump,” said Dan Sena, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Democrats took back the House. “The record from a messaging perspective of using Donald Trump as a foil is mixed and I think it’s important for Democrats to remember that.”
How Democrats use Trump in 2022 should largely depend on the district, the record of the Republican they are running against and the type of voters they need to reach, Sena said.
Polling has circulated among Democrats, including the White House, that indicated the term "MAGA" resonated with independent and moderate Republican voters, particularly those in the suburbs, according to a source familiar with the White House strategy.
“It’s something that moves the needle with those voters,” the person said.
Biden is using the phrase to attack Republicans for proposing to raise taxes on lower income Americans and making moves that would eliminate Medicare and Social Security.
Democratic leaders and strategists say Democrats should craft a message that lets them run against “extreme MAGA Republicans” like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., with the goal of painting a picture of a Republican Party that is out of sync with how suburban voters view themselves.
"Voters make up their minds based on how they feel about one option or another in an election and what image that conjures up in their head, and the image of a MAGA Republicans loyal to Trump is not an image that sells well in the suburbs," said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.
New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm who speaks with vulnerable members daily, said he is focused more on Trump's MAGA movement than Trump himself.
“What we’re going to run against are the extreme elements that define the Republican Party today and that will hurt working people,” Maloney said in an interview. “Their priority is to ban abortion in all 50 states. That’s an extreme MAGA Republican agenda; that has nothing to do with the former president. ...
"Marjorie Taylor Green is the face of that party. We're going to let the voters know."
Other Democrats said they hope that Trump, who left office with a 34 percent approval rating, continues to loom large in the midterms.
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said it would be politically "advantageous" for Democrats facing tough re-election fights like himself if tech billionaire Elon Musk followed through and reinstated Trump on Twitter, which Phillips believes would alienate voters.
“I think he should be allowed back on the platform and remain subject to the same code of conduct to which all Twitter users are,” Phillips said. “I think that would be advantageous and appropriate.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., co-chair of House Democrats’ messaging operation who antagonized Trump when he was in the White House, took it a step further. Lieu said his party would like nothing better than for Trump to announce a 2024 presidential bid as soon as possible.
“I urge Donald Trump to have the courage to declare for president tomorrow,” Lieu said.