(Bloomberg) -- A day after federal agents searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home as part of a widening investigation, there were few signs that Republicans were ready to distance themselves from the former president.
Instead, everyone from the Republican National Committee to potential 2024 presidential primary rivals like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis echoed Trump’s assertion that the Justice Department’s search was politically motivated, casting him as a political martyr.
The support is further evidence of Trump’s enduring grip on the GOP. In recent days, a poll of his most-fervent supporters showed that he remains the presumptive favorite for the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump has dropped numerous hints he intends to run again.
So the issue really is timing and how disruptive it will be to the midterm elections. With less than 100 days before those critical November races, Republicans need Trump’s enthusiastic base to have a shot at flipping control of Congress.
If the investigation doesn’t produce evidence of what the public perceives as serious wrongdoing, it could help Trump’s endorsed candidates in November and give him a boost in 2024.
“It’s a double-edge sword, and it’s all going to sway on whether or not this raid produces something of real substance,” said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy in Florida. “If it doesn’t, it’s going to look really, really bad to basically raid the house of a former president for something that might amount to a whole lot of nothing.”
Before the FBI search, Coker said he saw evidence from private polling in multiple states that Trump’s popularity had dropped after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol showed an erratic president desperate to stay in power.
Those damaging televised hearings had stirred talk that Republicans would increasingly look elsewhere for a 2024 candidate. DeSantis, for example, began to climb in the polls. He’s a rising star and one-time acolyte of Trump, minus the toxic baggage.
This past weekend a presidential straw poll of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas showed Trump as the clear choice with a 99% approval rating and the choice of 69% of attendees, followed by DeSantis at 24%.
Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville, who advised former President Bill Clinton, doubts the Justice Department would have acted unless it was clearly warranted.
“If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t speak very definitively about it,” Carville said. “My guess is this is serious. I can’t imagine that this wasn’t reviewed extensively by the highest authorities.”
Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, assailed the lack of a public explanation for the search and said he had spoken with FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday to share his concerns.
“If the FBI isn’t extraordinarily transparent about its justification for yesterday’s actions and committed to rooting out political bias that has infected their most sensitive investigations, they will have sealed their own fate,” Grassley said in a statement released by his office.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also called for an immediate explanation in a fresh statement Tuesday evening.
Trump’s supporters in the GOP, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, called the FBI search politically motivated, seeking to portray the former president as the victim of opponents bent on preventing him from returning to power.
Some Republicans are opposed to Trump announcing his nomination before November for fear it will energize Democrats and distract from skyrocketing inflation and other issues the GOP wants to use against Democrats.
But after the search, some Trump advisers including Steve Bannon called for the former president to just go for it now. Potential GOP presidential candidates including DeSantis, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Texas US Senator Ted Cruz rallied behind him.
DeSantis called it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.”
In fact, Trump is mired in several state and federal investigations. In February, the National Archives and Records Administration confirmed that it had retrieved 15 boxes of presidential documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
In a USA Today poll taken shortly afterward, 56% of voters agreed that it was “a serious issue of governance that warrants further investigation.” Only 31% agreed more with the statement that it was “an issue fueled mostly by partisanship that doesn’t warrant further investigation.”
But the poll results were highly partisan, with 88% of Democrats and only 27% of Republicans concerned about Trump’s handling of records. Independents sided more with Democrats, 55% to 32%.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out in competitive Senate races, which Democrats need to win to control the upper house and where Trump has personally hand-picked candidates he favors. Trump’s support was 44% in Pennsylvania and 43% in Georgia, according to Fox News polls last month -- nearly identical to President Joe Biden’s low approval in those states.
Trump-endorsed Senate candidates JD Vance in Ohio, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Blake Masters in Arizona tweeted that the search was politically motivated, and Herschel Walker in Georgia said in a statement provided by his campaign that Trump’s opponents are “weaponizing the FBI” at a time of rising prices.
Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist, said that the unprecedented nature of raiding an ex-president’s home extends beyond politics to American democracy.
“Obviously we need accountability. And obviously if something was done illegally Americans need to know,” he said. “But invading an ex-president’s home, if you don’t have irrefutable evidence, you’re going to pay a huge price and this is going to destroy the FBI.”
(Updates with Grassley, McConnell comments starting in 12th paragraph)
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