To say that Donald Trump is returning to the campaign trail would suggest he’s ever gone away.
But starting Thursday night, the former president returned in a new way – four rallies in five days – for his sprint to Election Day, putting himself at the forefront of the GOP fight for control of Congress.
The rallies in Iowa, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio serve another purpose as well – to buttress Trump’s increasingly likely 2024 presidential campaign.
“Get ready, that’s all I’m saying,” Trump told the crowd in Sioux City, Iowa, on Thursday, adding that he “will very, very probably do it again.”
His final push to boost Republican candidates whose races could determine control of the US Senate began in the state he won comfortably in 2016 and 2020 but where Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is looking for a last-minute boost from Trump’s base after a Des Moines Register poll last month found the seven-term senator in a far closer contest than expected against Democrat Mike Franken. Two people familiar with the matter said the Iowa Republican asked Trump to make a stop in his state.
“To make sure that this trip to Iowa by President Trump is worthwhile, every one of you needs to get your family and friends to vote,” Grassley said when he briefly took the podium.
Trump touted the Iowa Republican’s longevity and lengthy Senate career, describing Grassley as “very special” and a “crucial” reason he was able to confirm hundreds of federal judges as president.
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But the former president’s appearance there, along with the other stops on his final midterm blitz, is also motivated by his desire to return to the White House, said multiple sources close to him. Trump, who lost the Iowa caucuses in 2016, hadn’t returned to Iowa in more than a year, and some Republicans suggest his absence has opened the door for other presidential prospects, some of whom have already made multiple trips to the first-in-the-nation state.
“In this climate, there is zero chance Chuck Grassley is truly in trouble. There’s a major opening [in the Iowa caucuses], so this is a 2024 thing,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg.
Yet several top Republicans in Iowa were caught off guard by the former president’s decision to choose Sioux City for a rally on Thursday night, as Gov. Kim Reynolds was already scheduled to be on the opposite end of the state for a bus tour, officials said. When Trump decided to parachute in days before the election, she and other candidates adjusted their plans to join him for the first stop of his pre-election rallies.
“This rally is about President Trump’s future, not about the Iowa Republican,” a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa said.
One Trump adviser said the former president wanted his appearance in Iowa “to be a show of force for 2024,” adding that Trump’s Sunday night rally in Miami should be viewed through the same lens.
Hours before Trump was due to rally on Thursday, former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway spoke openly of a looming Trump announcement and said the former president is being advised by some of his allies to deliver “a November surprise.”
“He’d like to have done it already. … I think you can expect him to announce it soon,” said Conway, who was speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington. “He’s being urged by some people to still have a November surprise.”
Midterm outcomes important to Trump
But others insist that Trump’s primary focus over the next five days is to carry embattled Republicans to victory, acknowledging that his own political future will be inextricably linked to Tuesday’s outcome.
“There are folks who are never going to be with President Trump at the end of the day, but there are others who will decide whether they are with him or not once we know where the chips fall,” said a second Trump adviser.
To that end, Trump, in addition to his rallies, will host dozens of tele-town halls with Republican candidates for state and federal races over the next five days, a senior Trump aide told CNN. This week, his primary fundraising vehicle MAGA Inc., also spent another $2.7 million in advertising across Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, lending a last-minute boost to Senate Republican hopefuls in each state and bringing its total spending this cycle to around $15 million, a sizable sum after his relatively meager spending in primaries.
Trump’s final midterm campaign swing comes as Democrats deploy a number of high-profile surrogates to boost enthusiasm for the party and, in some cases, rescue endangered Democrats from close contests. Former President Barack Obama barnstormed the Midwest over the weekend with stops in Milwaukee and Detroit, while Vice President Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are both slated to campaign for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul this week as she fends off Republican challenger Lee Zeldin.
Meanwhile, Trump will spend part of the weekend before Election Day rallying alongside Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose reelection bid has been considerably less competitive than other Senate contests. The decision to expend energy on Rubio’s race was widely seen inside Trump’s orbit as a warning shot to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, potentially Trump’s biggest rival in a presidential primary.
Trump’s Florida rally will occur at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition, located in a heavily Hispanic part of the state that has been trending toward Republicans in recent years. DeSantis is scheduled to his own events the same day as Trump but elsewhere in the state, and CNN has learned that the Florida governor is eyeing an Iowa trip of his own after his reelection campaign is complete, further fueling an intensifying duel with the former President .
Two Trump advisers, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said DeSantis would gain a major selling point in a contested presidential primary if he won Miami-Dade county, a feat that some Republicans consider attainable.
“I really think DeSantis is going to outperform expectations – especially around Miami – and this rally is all about setting Trump up to take credit if he does,” said Nunberg.
Taking credit for Republican gains has long been Trump’s strategy as he works to craft a compelling reason for mounting a third presidential campaign, something that goes beyond his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. For months, the former president’s team has beat back criticism from Trump-weary corners of the party that candidates he personally recruited or elevated in primaries couldn’t be competitive in general election races. Now, as critical contests in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio narrow, they are waiting with bated breath for an “I told you so” moment. Trump has devoted the closing weeks of the midterms to carrying candidates in those races over the finish line, acting as both a team player and candidate-in-waiting.
“At this point, the entire Republican Party, from fundraising, to data, to get-out-the-vote, is on Donald Trump’s shoulders and together they will deliver massive GOP victories come November 8,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement.
On Saturday, Trump will host his final midterm rally in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz is in a dead heat against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and Doug Mastriano, the party’s ultra-conservative gubernatorial nominee, trails Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He will then spend election eve in Dayton, Ohio, working to boost turnout for Senate hopeful J.D. Vance, with whom Trump advisers say the former president has forged a close relationship.
A person familiar with the matter said it was the Vance campaign’s idea to invite Trump to Dayton, an area they felt he could be the most helpful 24 hours before Election Day.
“There is no better person to rally for you the night before the election for get-out-the-vote purposes than Donald Trump. Having a blowout rally in an area where the former president is immensely popular is a huge value add,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist advising Vance and a former Trump campaign aide.
Trump lost Montgomery County, which includes Dayton, by around 6,000 votes in 2020, a significantly smaller margin than other counties with metropolitan hubs. While some Democrats have floated Ohio as a potential upset race for Rep. Tim Ryan, people familiar with Trump’s thinking said he views Vance and Nevada Republican Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt as two of his easiest boosts in the final days of the cycle.
While Tuesday’s election carries significant weight for the Republican Party, which needs to pick up only five seats to retake the House and finds itself in serious contention for the evenly split Senate, it is bound to impact Trump individually as well.
Staying out of states where his presence could backfire
Trump’s impending 2024 presidential campaign could be crippled before it even begins if he faces a string of losses in Senate and gubernatorial contests that threaten his credibility as a so-called kingmaker and raise questions about his popularity with GOP voters. Even in the weeks leading up to Election Day, aides to the former president have had to strategically craft his campaign schedule, keeping him from states where his presence could backfire against Republicans and where other GOP heavyweights like DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin are in greater demand.
“It’s really hard to tell him no, but there are places where you don’t want to have the guy who lost to Biden campaigning for you when you’re surging,” said a Republican operative involved in several midterm races.
Even as many Trump-endorsed candidates close the gap against their opponents, his allies say they are bracing for a post-election blame game if the Senate remains in Democratic control. Republican leaders have already struggled at times to hold their fire against each other this cycle, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the Senate GOP campaign arm and has clashed repeatedly with the Kentucky Republican over the party’s candidates and messaging this cycle. Trump allies say they expect criticism from both camps if GOP Senate candidates underperform on Tuesday. In some cases, they have already prepared their counterattacks.
“If Blake Masters loses by a point or two in Arizona, the only person to blame will be Mitch McConnell,” said one of the Trump advisers, pointing to a September decision by the Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with McConnell, to yank $9.6 million in ad spending out of the Arizona Senate race between Masters, a Trump-endorsed Republican, and incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly.
In an interview this week, Trump struck a cautious tone when asked about the Senate map, eschewing the confidence he typically oozes at his freewheeling campaign rallies.
“I think we have a chance of picking up the Senate. If you would have asked me that question three months ago, I would not have said that,” the former president told conservative radio host Chris Stigall on Tuesday.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.