On the eve of a crucial midterms election that Joe Biden has warned “will preserve democracy or put us at risk”, veteran top Republican strategist Karl Rove says his party will benefit from dissatisfaction with the status quo, despite the specter of a Trump 2024 run and the end of federal abortion rights.
Rove, widely as a villain by the left for his orchestration of George W Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000, and for his senior role in Bush’s two terms as president, says American voters are being propelled by fears over inflation, the economy, crime in some areas, and feelings about the overall direction the country.
“Every midterm is similar in some respects and different in others,” Rove told the Guardian. “In this instance, it’s similar to others in that the party in power, the one that controls the White House and both houses of Congress, is held responsible for the condition of the country, right or wrong.”
Rove – once known as “Bush’s brain” and seen as a savant of rightwing US politics – has been a critic of Trump, especially over the January 6 insurrection, but has also remained loyal to the Republican cause.
The latest Gallup polling shows 40% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president; 17% are satisfied with the way things are going in the US; 49% described the health of the economy as poor, and 21% approve of the job the democratic-led congress is doing. An ABC News/Ipsos poll found that while three in five registered voters said abortion should be legal in most cases, half said that the economy and inflation remain the most important issues.
Rove has little respect for Democrat campaign chiefs who are only now turning to the inflation and the economy in the closing days of a mid-cycle election that could reach $9bn in political ad spending, according to Kantar/CMAG.
“The geniuses in the West Wing thought they could make the election about anything they wanted it to be about. A midterm election in particular is about what the people want it to be about.”
What they want it to be about, he holds, is about the grocery-store checkout total, the car fill-up, clothes for the kids, school supplies, utility bills and that their pay check isn’t keeping up.
Making the election about threats to democracy, as Biden did again last Wednesday in primetime speech, only works if the candidate is an “election-denier” Republican like Jim Marchant for Nevada candidate for secretary of state, or Matthew DePerno, the Maga candidate for Michigan attorney general, Rove says.
“You cannot make that broad-brush argument about, fill in the blank, Ron Johnson, Herschel Walker, Ted Budd, Marco Rubio, Don Bacon,” Rove says, referring to candidates in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Nebraska, respectively.
“The White House was not really been distinguishing between Republicans and Maga Republicans. They’re making the argument that the Republican party is a bunch of extremists, and that doesn’t sell.”
But Trump is the shadow that hangs over the election, given that it’s the first time that Americans have gone to the polls since the January 6 riot. There has been a flurry of speculation that an announcement on a 2024 campaign will come within weeks, if not days of the midterms vote.
Yet in some case, the former US president has acted against Republican candidates who might otherwise have a clear shot at winning office. Rove believes that the influence of Trump has been a weight around the Republican cause.
Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Rove holds, decided not to run for re-election because Trump made it clear he would oppose him. Instead, Ducey warned in July that candidate Kari Lake was “misleading voters” about election integrity and claiming that her whole campaign was “an act”. (Ducey has since signaled support for Lake).
“If Ducey was the candidate, the election would be over there already,” Rove adds. Last week, Barack Obama warned that if Republican election-deniers won in Arizona, democracy in the state might not survive.
Similarly, Trump has called for the defeat of the Republican candidate in Colorado. The party has candidates struggling in New Hampshire and in Ohio, a state that voted for Trump by bigger margins than in Texas.
“The Super Pac I’m associated is spending $35m to try to drag JD Vance [in Ohio] across the finish line,” Rove says with some measure of exasperation. “The smart thing is, every candidate is doing polls and every candidate is realizing that in their state or district they are likely to be more popular than Donald Trump.
“Put it another way, Donald Trump is an anchor weighing them down. He looms over this, no ifs or buts.”
Yet denying – or at least questioning – America’s electoral system has become common across the Republican party.
According to The Truth About Voter Fraud by the Brennan Center, Republican politicians “at all levels of government have repeatedly, and falsely, claimed the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections were marred by large numbers of people voting illegally”.
It added: “However, extensive research reveals that fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators.”
Rove thinks Democrats have not historically free from this charge either, such as the controversy over Ohio’s vote in the 2004 election where some Democrats protested about alleged irregularities. But in the end, Rove says, “you cannot build an election in America on that, even for or against it”.