Former US President Donald Trump greets fans as he arrives before the finals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
CNN  — 

Amid all the other uncertainties surrounding the possible indictment of Donald Trump, the flurry of events has made one thing unequivocally clear: the former president remains the center of the GOP universe.

The rush of GOP leaders to preemptively condemn Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s potential indictment of Trump as inherently illegitimate and politically motivated underscores the party leadership’s ongoing reluctance to separate itself from, much less criticize, Trump in almost any way. Republican leaders in the House have quickly moved in the opposite direction, demanding documents from Bragg and promising to investigate the investigators.

These rapid-fire events have been a reality check for those in the party who believed, or at least hoped, that Trump’s influence over the GOP had peaked. After the party’s disappointing performance in last November’s midterm election, which included losses for multiple Trump-endorsed Senate and gubernatorial candidates in key swing states, an unprecedented procession of GOP strategists, local leaders and fundraisers openly insisted that the party needed to move on from him in 2024. But the blistering attacks on the New York investigation by figures like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Vice President Mike Pence quickly demonstrated how difficult that will be to do in practice.

“You would think they would have learned their lesson” from Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the GOP’s surprisingly weak showing in 2022, said Jennifer Horn, a former state Republican party chair in New Hampshire, who has emerged as a staunch Trump critic. “It’s like they are addicted to him. The GOP can’t break their addiction to Trump.”

But while the reaction has demonstrated the depths of Trump’s hold on the party’s elected leaders, it may be premature to assume that an indictment in New York – or potentially further indictments from federal and Fulton County, Georgia, investigations – is assured to strengthen his position in the 2024 nomination contest.

While indictments could well inspire a rally-around-the-flag reaction from Trump’s core supporters, more legal trouble for the former president could simultaneously harden the hesitations of the substantial party block worried about his ability to win in 2024, many GOP strategists believe.

“I think there are core Trump voters that this galvanizes,” says Dave Wilson, a conservative strategist in South Carolina with close ties to the evangelical community. “I think that there is a much broader group of Republican/conservative voters that this may give enough pause to, to then say, ‘I’m going to at least look at everybody else in the field.’”

All this suggests that the political impact of a potential indictment could differ for Trump personally, and for the party overall.

Once Trump posted that he could be arrested as soon as Tuesday, his allies hurried to declare that any such action would increase the odds of him winning the nomination and the presidency. “If the Manhattan DA indicts President Trump, he will ultimately win even bigger than he is already going to win,” far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia declared in a tweet Saturday. Likewise, the conservative commentator Erick Erickson insisted, “the people who want to lock him up, do not appreciate the backlash to arresting Trump that’ll happen.”

Few in either party doubt that Trump’s base will take any legal action against him as proof of his frequent charge that the “establishment” or “Marxist prosecutors” are targeting him as a way to silence them. But those voters, while a powerful faction inside the GOP coalition, are not the only voters who will decide the Republican nomination next year – much less the general election. And polls leave little doubt that there is a significant contingent not only of general election swing voters, but even likely participants in the Republican primary, who harbor significant doubts about Trump.

For hesitant GOP voters, those doubts revolve primarily around concern about whether Trump can win in 2024. In a February PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 54% of likely 2024 GOP voters said they believed the party would have a better chance to win next year if it nominated someone other than Trump, while only 42% said picking the former president again would give Republicans their best odds of success. The doubts were especially deep among Republicans holding at least a four-year college degree, with 71% of them saying that another nominee would improve the party’s prospects and only 26% saying Trump represented the GOP’s best bet. But even Republicans without a four-year college degree – Trump’s bedrock supporters dating back to the 2016 primaries- – split evenly on that question, and White evangelical Christians, another core Trump group, actually leaned slightly toward someone else.

Yet there’s no guarantee that broad sentiment will translate into enough support for a specific GOP alternative to deny Trump a third nomination. The latest CNN national poll of GOP primary voters, conducted by SRSS, highlights that difficulty.

The survey found that about three-fifths of GOP voters said they most prioritized a nominee who shared their positions on issues, while about two-fifths wanted someone who had the best chance of beating President Joe Biden. Trump led among the voters who wanted a candidate who shared their views, while Gov. Ron DeSantis led among those who prioritized electability, according to previously unpublished results provided by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta. The problem for DeSantis: not only was the group focused on shared values larger, but Trump led among them by nearly twice as much (nine percentage points) as the Florida governor led among those who emphasized beating Biden (five points).

Craig Robinson, the former political director for the Republican Party in Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the GOP nomination fight next year, believes an indictment – or multiple indictments – of Trump could reinforce the divide between these two viewpoints in the party. Even before news of a potential indictment broke, Robinson recently said he saw a clear distinction between his business-oriented, college-educated urban Republican friends who feel, “‘Hey, we just want to move on [from Trump],’” and those in rural Iowa who “are looking for the fighter…and that’s Trump by and large.”

Those drawn to Trump are likely to dominate the initial party reaction to any indictments, Robinson said. But he also believes those voices won’t necessarily prevail when votes are cast next year. Amid the firestorm over any indictment, the mostly college-educated Republicans hesitant about nominating Trump a third time “might kind of quiet down a little bit,” Robinson said. “But this is the stuff they don’t want. This is the stuff that causes them a headache. This is the stuff they prefer to move on from.”

In South Carolina, Wilson also expects the same kind of bifurcated reaction. While many might rally around the former president, Wilson said a Trump indictment could reinforce what he felt was the dominant sentiment at the conference the Palmetto Family Council, a social conservative group, held in Charleston last weekend for GOP leaders and potential 2024 candidates. That sentiment, he said, revolved around the belief “that Americans can and should be focused on 2024, as opposed to dredging up issues” from the past. “People want to be focused on what we are doing for the next four, eight, twelve, twenty years from now, not looking in the rear-view mirror,” he added.

But Robinson cautioned that it may be unrealistic for the 2024 hopefuls to believe enough Republican voters will reach that conclusion on their own. If another candidate wants voters to pass over a figure that looms as large over the party as Trump, Robinson maintains, they will need to give them an explicit reason to do so – and the prospect of sustained legal trouble could provide them a powerful argument in making that case. “The alternative to Trump would be someone to say, ‘We can’t be having this, this isn’t what the election should be about,’” Robinson said.

So far, no one central to the potential 2024 race has come close to saying that. At the Palmetto Family Council event former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (who’s also a former federal prosecutor) said Trump “needs to have his day in court” and that Republicans should not be so quick to condemn the investigation. On ABC’s “This Week,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (also a former federal prosecutor) criticized the investigation, but also rejected the idea that it would benefit Trump politically. “Being indicted never helps anybody,” Christie said. “It’s not a help.” DeSantis on Monday took a step away from Trump when the Florida governor somewhat derisively referred to “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” But DeSantis joined Pence and other potential Trump 2024 rivals in insisting the investigation showed that the Manhattan DA was “pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”

If the potential 2024 GOP candidates tip-toed around the possible indictment, House GOP leaders quickly barreled into full-scale attack mode. Almost immediately after Trump’s initial post, Greene portrayed denunciation of the investigation as a party litmus test by tweeting: “Those Republicans that stand by and cheer for his persecution or do nothing to stop it will be exposed to the people and will be remembered, scorned, and punished by the base.” McCarthy followed a few hours later with his call to investigate the investigators, which House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Jordan and two other committee chairs moved into practice on Monday by demanding documents and testimony from the New York prosecutors. “You are reportedly about to engage in an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority,” the chairs began their letter to Bragg. McCarthy edged away from Trump only by opposing public protests (though McCarthy, implausibly, insisted Trump had not asked for them in posts where he directly called on supporters to protest.)

By moving so aggressively to defend Trump – even to the point of appearing to intimidate an ongoing investigation –House Republican leaders have made clear that while many GOP strategists or donors want the party to distance itself from the former president, they have not received that memo. Horn said McCarthy’s call to investigate the investigation echoes language that might be heard in an authoritarian state like China. “That is genuinely outrageous,” she said. “We call everything an outrage in this country lately, but to have the speaker of the House suggest that a legitimate, detailed legal investigation should somehow be undermined by the US Congress because it’s against their guy – it’s anti-democracy. It’s anti-American.”

The House GOP attack on Bragg comes after McCarthy has already provided thousands of hours of January 6 security footage to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who used it to try to whitewash the attack. McCarthy has also allowed Greene to lead an investigation of alleged mistreatment in Washington, DC, jails of the January 6 rioters, who Trump has continued to defend and signal that he would pardon if reelected.

All of this followed a midterm election when Republicans underperformed historical patterns for the party out of the White House in large part because too many swing voters discontented about the economy and disenchanted with Biden still viewed the GOP alternative as too extreme. Candidates that Trump virtually hand-picked lost key statewide races in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona – the five states that decided the 2020 race by shifting from Trump four years earlier to Biden and could again dictate the result in 2024. Exit polls in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona found that nearly three-fifths of voters in those critical battlegrounds viewed Trump unfavorably.

Which is why Democrats are watching with such amazement – and a spreading sense of opportunity – as McCarthy so indelibly tattoos the Trump stamp onto the House GOP. “You now have multiple elections from 2018 forward showing that this playbook is not only extremely dangerous [for the country], it is completely ineffective” politically, said Dan Sena, former executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Defending Donald Trump has never been a winning electoral strategy-ever.”

Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, agreed that Republicans, “may be getting the broader electorate very wrong here, as they did in 2022.” But whatever the near-term partisan consequences, Bennett, like Sena and Horn, believes the much larger and more ominous signal is the continuing indication that Republicans, especially in the House, are willing to break almost any convention to protect Trump.

The reluctance of virtually any leading Republican to dissent from the preemptive condemnation of the Manhattan investigation suggests how difficult it may be for party leaders to step out of line if and when Trump faces further indictments on more serious charges from the federal and Georgia probes.

“It’s profoundly dangerous and bad,” Bennett said. “This is the conduct, the quisling approach to strong men, that gets countries into very serious trouble.”