The Irish Times view on the US midterm elections: Donald Trump’s long shadow

Despite his legal setbacks, the former president’s hold over his party remains difficult to shake

History would suggest that Joe Biden and the Democrats, fighting to hold their own in Congress in November’s midterm elections, should be on a hiding to nothing. The last time the party in the White House gained midterm seats was 2002, when Republicans rode a wave of support after 9/11 to pick up eight House of Representatives seats.

The elections have tended to be a referendum on the presidency, and both the soaring cost of living and fuel prices looked set to wipe out Biden’s majority in the House. But an apparently successful attempt by the president to refocus the attention of voters on to issues like the threat to abortion rights or same-sex marriage and Donald Trump’s continued attempts to delegitimise the last election – and future ones – may be rewriting electoral history in the Democrats’ favour.

Although Trump’s name is not on the ballot paper, the Republican Party – refashioned in his image – and his loyal candidates are there, both for congressional seats and state positions which will give them power to interfere with the election results. “Maga [Make America Great Again] forces are determined to take this country backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love,” Biden warned in a speech in Philadelphia. Voters appear to be listening. And last week was not a good one for Trump. A long-expected New York fraud suit was filed against him, seeking to recover $250 million from his company and run him out of business in the state. He lost an important court ruling inhibiting the justice department investigation of classified papers held at his Florida home. And next month his company will go on trial in Manhattan on criminal tax charges in a separate case that could cost millions of dollars in penalties and legal fees.

Despite his setbacks, Trump’s hold remains difficult to shake. The public’s views of him have remained remarkably stable in recent months, according to a New York Times poll taken ahead of the most recent legal cases. Overall, 44 per cent of voters viewed Trump favourably, and 53 per cent unfavourably (44 per cent very unfavourably, and 23 per cent very favourably). His toxicity to marginal, swing voters is significant, however. Views of the former president’s fight against the election results also remained largely unchanged, with 54 per cent deeming it a threat to democracy, while half of voters said they thought Trump had committed serious federal crimes. Trump’s return to centre stage and preparations for another run at the presidency will be tested by the midterms. The poll suggests that in a hypothetical rematch in 2024 with Biden, the incumbent retains his small majority but by barely 3 percentage points.