‘It’s the accumulation’: The Jan. 6 hearings are wounding Trump, after all

Last updated on July 20, 2022

The conventional wisdom about the Jan. 6 committee hearings was that no single revelation was going to change Republican minds about Donald Trump.

What happened instead, a slow drip of negative coverage, may be just as damaging to the former president. Six weeks into the committee’s public hearing schedule, an emerging consensus is forming in Republican Party circles — including in Trump’s orbit — that a significant portion of the rank-and-file may be tiring of the non-stop series of revelations about Trump.

The fatigue is evident in public polling and in focus groups that suggest growing Republican openness to an alternative presidential nominee in 2024. The cumulative effect of the hearings, according to interviews with more than 20 Republican strategists, party officials and pollsters in recent days, has been to at least marginally weaken his support.

“It is definitely kind of this wet drip of, do you really want to debate the 2020 election again? Do you really want to debate what happened on Jan. 6?” said Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical leader in Iowa who is influential in primary politics in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. “Frankly, I think what I sense a little bit, even among some deep, deep Trump supporters … there’s a certain exhaustion to it.”

Trump’s public approval rating among Republicans remains high as he prepares for a widely expected run for president again in 2024. He still tops most primary polls, and Republicans largely haven’t been persuaded by much of what the Jan. 6 committee is doing. They were more likely last month than last year — before the hearings began — to describe the events of Jan. 6 as a “legitimate protest.”

But for many Republicans, the ongoing, backward-looking call-and-response between the committee and Trump may nevertheless be getting old.

“I think what everybody thought was that the first prime-time hearing was such a non-event that that would continue,” said Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer who served as Trump’s ambassador to Luxembourg. “But over the course of the hearings, the steadiness, the repetitiveness, has had a corrosive effect. You’d have to be oblivious to the way media works, the way reputations work, the way politics works, to not understand that it’s never the one thing. It’s the accumulation.”

Evans said, “This is all undoubtedly starting to take a toll — how much, I don’t know. But the bigger question is whether it starts to eat through the Teflon. There are some signs that maybe it has. But it’s too early to say right now.”

For more than a year after Trump lost the presidential election, his political durability was not even in question. But the committee hearings appear to have had an effect on Trump’s enormous fundraising operation, which has slowed in recent months. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who may run in 2024, has been gaining on Trump in some polls, including in New Hampshire, the first primary state, where one recent survey had DeSantis statistically tied with Trump among Republican primary voters. Republicans are still poring over a New York Times/Siena College poll last week that showed nearly half of Republican primary voters would rather vote for a Republican other than Trump in 2024.

In a series of focus groups with 2020 Trump supporters from across the country since the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2001, Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who became a vocal supporter of Joe Biden in 2020, for more than a year found about half of participants consistently said they wanted Trump to run again. But that number has fallen off since the hearings began, she said.

“We’ve had now three focus groups where zero people have wanted him to run again, and a couple other groups where it’s been like two people,” Longwell said. “Totally different.”

The Trump supporters in her focus groups are still dismissive of the hearings, Longwell said, “and I don’t think people are sitting down and being persuaded” by them.

However, she said, the hearings have “turned the volume up on the Trump baggage.”

“The other thing,” she said, “is I cannot tell you how much these Republican voters want to move on from the conversation of January 6th.”

‘Political Theater’

That’s a far cry from the Republican view of the hearings when they started: Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) derided what he called a “prime-time dud.” Jim Justice, the Republican governor of West Virginia, dismissed them as “political theater.” And Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri called them a “complete waste of time.”

One reason that the hearings are resonating now is that even if Republicans don’t agree with the committee’s findings, they read polls. The percentage of Republicans who say Trump misled people about the 2020 election has ticked up since last month, while a majority of Americans say Trump committed a crime. Perhaps most problematic for Trump, 16 percent of Republicans in the Siena College survey said they would vote for someone else in the general election or aren’t sure what they will do in 2024 if Trump is the nominee.

That’s a relatively small segment of the Republican electorate, but a critical one in competitive states that will decide which party controls the White House.

“I think you’re starting to see the impact of the hearings, and just overall his behavior since he lost the election,” said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist.

“He’s got a hard-core base, and there’s no doubt about that,” said Wadhams. “I voted for him twice, I loved his accomplishments. But I do think he’s compromised himself into a situation where it would be very difficult for him to win another election for president.”

Electability concerns may loom especially large this year for Republicans, who view Biden as a beatable incumbent. His cratering public approval ratings, now hovering below 39 percent, are worse than Trump’s at this point in his presidency. One senior House Republican aide described the resonance of the Jan. 6 committee hearings as in part a product of the contrast they are drawing between “a golden opportunity to win back the White House in 2024 and the only person who might not be able to do it.”

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Trump has regularly criticized the committee’s work as a partisan exercise. And because most other Republicans view it that way, too, it’s unlikely that many of Trump’s opponents will leverage the committee’s revelations explicitly in the run-up to 2024.

Proxy wars

Still, the Republicans who may run against Trump in 2024 are increasingly breaking with him as the midterm year drags on.

On Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence will campaign in Arizona for gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson, while Trump that same day appears in the presidential swing state for Robson’s rival for the GOP nomination, former TV news anchor Kari Lake. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others, have split with Trump in midterm endorsements in other states. So has outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who engaged in proxy war with Trump in the gubernatorial primary held Tuesday in Hogan’s home state.

As much has anything, those midterm primaries – coinciding with the Jan. 6 committee hearings – have laid bare the willingness of Republicans in at least some cases to disassociate their adoration for Trump with support for him politically. Trump’s endorsement has pulled Republicans across the line in competitive primaries in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, but his chosen candidates have flopped in other races, including in Georgia and Nebraska.

“The effect of the hearings will be negligible on Trump’s favorable ratings among Republicans,” said Whit Ayres, the longtime Republican pollster. “The ‘Always Trumpers’ and the ‘Maybe Trumpers’ are resolute in their insistence that they are paying no attention whatsoever to the hearings. It’s almost an article of faith among Republicans to say, ‘I am not paying attention to these hearings’.”

However, Ayres said, “The way it translates is that they believe that other candidates will carry less baggage … and that gets reinforced by what seeps into the political water from these hearings.

And as the Jan. 6 committee prepares for another hearing on Thursday, the ongoing focus on Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 is now in the political waters.

John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country, said that in recent conversations with state party chairs and Republican activists in numerous states, “almost to the T, and I don’t really care what state it’s in, they all say, ‘Love Trump, love his policies, wish he would just be a kingmaker.’ And that’s really a shift, because six months ago, a year ago, it was, ‘Trump’s got to run again, he’s the only one who can fight the swamp, drive the policy agenda.’”

“It’s not Trump hatred,” Thomas added. “It’s Trump fatigue. I think [the Jan. 6 committee hearings] reminds people to the degree that they’re tuning in that, eh, is this that important of an issue? No. But damn … And then Trump goes on his rants and it’s like, ‘We’re tired of it.’”