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The ‘big mistake’ Republican senators want to avoid after Trump’s conviction

On both sides of the Capitol, most Republicans say former President Donald Trump’s criminal conviction in New York is politically motivated rather than a substantive case. And the GOP racked in fundraising after Trump was found guilty.

Yet just as Democrats weigh how much to talk about Trump on the trail this fall, Republicans are deep in their own open debate about just how much the verdict will matter on Election Day. Many GOP senators want to talk about the economy and President Joe Biden’s record — not litigate the first felony conviction of a former president.

The GOP has spent months upon months laying the groundwork to make this fall’s election a referendum on Biden, talking relentlessly about stubborn inflation and spiking migration. Quite a few Republicans see those issues as more advantageous ground than defending the party’s nominee after a conviction on 34 counts of falsifying records related to hush money payments to a porn star.

In Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) view: “The best campaign in 2024 is to point out the economic circumstances that we’re in. And the policies of the Biden administration.”

And Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) put it this way: “The big mistake that we make is to shift our attention away from a failing economy of failing global stature all the way back to retrograde in Afghanistan,” adding that “Trump wins if we focus on those issues.”

They’re not necessarily going to win the day in the party, though. Some Republicans want Trump’s conviction to be a central element of the party’s message over the next five months, seeing the potential for more fundraising bumps and base-motivating political gold.

“If anything, it’s going to have a positive impact,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said. “You don’t have to look further than the fundraising. Set that aside: This is firing people up.”

Several GOP senators went up to New York to show solidarity with the former president during the trial, and many issued rancorous statements last week backing up Trump. Yet in the end, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) predicted the trial verdict will be a “blip” on the national conscience come November, with the election being fought over the border and the economy, among other issues.

Marshall suggested Trump’s vice presidential pick would have a greater impact on the election than the felony convictions.

“That’s a bigger deal than at this point than what this verdict is. There’s this 15 to 20 percent of people in primaries who are still voting for Nikki Haley. How do we reach out to that group?” Marshall said. “That’s a bigger issue than this verdict.”

Of course, even if GOP senators who want to focus elsewhere win the messaging battle here, they can’t escape the trial entirely — congressional Republicans and Trump still have to share a ticket in November. It’s clear where Trump’s head is at, as he decries his treatment by the court and his party fundraises off the issue.

If Trump keeps that up, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to talk only about the economy, immigration and Biden’s record.

“Absolutely, we should talk about it,” said Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.) of Trump’s guilty verdict.

Red-state campaign watch: In two key Senate races, Republican candidates are moving to make the guilty verdict a central issue on the trail. Tim Sheehy in Montana and Bernie Moreno in Ohio both launched ads Monday hitting Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, asserting they support the “witch hunt” against Trump.

The Moreno spend is a five-figure digital ad, part of a larger seven-figure buy.

Tester responded to the Montana ad by saying that Sheehy has a “problem with the truth” and said that he “paid no attention” to the trial while it was happening.

“Like everybody else, President Trump has the ability to appeal it and in the end the final arbitrator will be the voters in November. It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Tester said.

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