Republican lawmakers, many of whom speak to Donald Trump regularly, want the 2024 GOP front-runner to hammer a campaign message focused on immigration and the economy, saying that is where President Joe Biden is most vulnerable.
Trump weaved those two issues into the backbone of a conservative populist message during his successful 2016 White House bid. After the COVID-19 pandemic shook up every aspect of life and hamstrung the economy, then-President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign message, by necessity, was more disjointed, and Biden prevailed.
GOP lawmakers, even if they have endorsed other candidates in their party’s ongoing presidential primary, said Biden has made a mess of the U.S.-Mexico border and is not enforcing immigration laws. The same Republican members said their constituents complain daily about still-high prices, even as inflation rates have eased, and believe Biden has bungled a fundamentally strong economy that Trump left him.
They see Trump as uniquely suited to pounce. But they say he must stay on message and not allow his legal troubles to water down what, so far, has been a campaign focused on promises to drastically reduce immigration and shape an economy in which houses, cars, fuel and everyday items will somehow be more affordable.
“I think, right now, on the current course and speed, he wins a general election,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said of Trump. “I think a lot of it depends on tone and priorities. … The American people want somebody to give them optimism, and give them a sense that the next four years are going to be a hell of a lot better than the last four.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he would advise the former president to focus on three issues: “The border. The border. And the economy.” He suggested Trump could turn the situation at the southern border into two issues; saying “the border” would fire up his GOP base and “immigration” would appeal to the independent voters in the key swing states analysts and strategists have said likely will decide the election.
“I just think the reason Donald Trump is doing so well is because of the issue that’s so easy to compare the two candidates. … It really is the southern border,” Cramer said, then turning to the economy: “The economy is recovering a little bit, but things are still not catching up. Obviously, people’s wages aren’t catching up to the inflation.”
But the situation at the southern border, which even some Democratic lawmakers now call a “crisis,” is mentioned more and more by voters, Cramer added, saying: “I hear it most often. … And I think it’s the independent voters that it resonates the most with, absolutely.”
GOP lawmakers interviewed late last week said Trump should emphasize talking about issues most on GOP and independent voters’ minds. But that does not mean they would prefer he talk less about his various court cases or drop his sharp-tongued style.
“Oh, yeah. They definitely do,” Cramer replied when asked if his constituents say they worry that Trump’s campaign rally lines about federal and state prosecutors targeting them could come true. “Independents, they’re just looking at the result. And I think that they’re becoming more and more concerned about the outcomes than they are about the personalities.”
Biden, so far, has struggled to find a reelection message about the economy that resonates with most voters. Trump has at times boiled his pitch down to a straightforward line — while the sitting president often sounds like an economics professor, with his talk of an economy that grows from the “middle out and bottom up” rather than the “top down.”
Here was Trump on Dec. 5 during a prime-time Fox News interview: “Who doesn’t want strong borders and a strong military and low taxes and low interest rates, and go out and buy a house?” Appearing on Fox News on Monday morning, Trump was in step with lawmakers’ advice, saying at one point: “We had the best border in the history of our country. We’re going to have that within 30 days. … I have all the people ready to go. … We’re going to get rid of inflation very quickly.” In both instances, he offered no policy proposals that might turn those promises into realities.
Polls have shown for months that most voters believe Trump and Republicans are better equipped at handling immigration and the economy. Biden campaign officials contend they are not worried about those numbers right now, making a big bet that once voters get serious about the general election later this year, they will see it as a choice between Biden and Trump.
“Talking about bringing back American jobs to this country, talking about taking on these big multinational companies that have been selling out our workers, closing down our border, getting wages growing again. I mean, I just think that’s what he ran on in 2016,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
“That’s why he became the Republican nominee against all odds. That’s why he won that  general election against all odds, against all predictions,” he added. “So, I just think that’s the right message. It’s not one that’s welcomed by the Republican establishment at this time at all. They hate all of that stuff. … But if we’re not in a working-class party, we’re not going to be a majority party, ever.”
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out of the GOP primary on Sunday, he posted a video on social media in which he described Trump as the Republican voters’ preference. Trump’s lone remaining primary foe, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, told CNN on Monday the former president is too focused on “investigations” and “the past” and “vengeance.” Within Haley’s critique was a call for Republican 2024 candidates to emphasize “solutions of the future.”
South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, who endorsed Haley, a former two-term Palmetto State governor, said late last week he did not believe Trump needs to alter his campaign trail message one bit.
In fact, Norman said the only reason he endorsed Haley was age.
“You don’t play a football game to win the first half,” he said. “You’ve got to have eight years [as president]. You’re not going to do that when you’re almost 80.”
In a telling anecdote that provides merely the latest data point about the grip the 77-year-old Trump maintains on the party, Norman said he called Trump to give him a heads-up before announcing his endorsement of Haley. How did Trump respond, according to Norman? “He was very benevolent about it.”
Trump is going to be Trump, the GOP lawmakers all noted. And that means he might listen to his party mates, and the members said they speak with him on the phone regularly. But they all said the candidate himself will set the tone and priorities of what could be his final White House bid.
“It kind of sounds like I’m giving him advice,” Hawley said with a smile. “He doesn’t need advice from me.”