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Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives during a campaign event at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 3.Stephen Maturen/Getty Images North America

Even if his name is not on the ballots Americans will cast next week, Donald Trump remains one of the most potent forces in the midterm elections, a vote that will demonstrate how much of the Republican party he has cast in his mould. It may even sway the former president’s decision to run again.

Mr. Trump has used the midterm elections to campaign for favoured candidates – and himself. With polls suggesting Republicans will take back control of at least one chamber in the U.S. Congress, the former president has positioned himself to seize the results as a personal victory, so long as his chosen candidates can secure their seats.

For voters, that means the Nov. 8 election not only offers a referendum on the performance of Joe Biden’s presidency, but will also serve judgment on Mr. Trump and the ways he has transformed U.S. politics.

Mr. Trump is “on the ballot only so much as he changed the direction of the party – he changed the direction of the country,” said Jai Chabria, a Republican strategist in Ohio, where Mr. Trump has endorsed lawyer and author J.D. Vance in a closely-watched Senate race.

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Among voters, Mr. Trump himself registers low on the list of priorities. But the issues that have surged to the fore, Mr. Chabria said, reflect a lack of faith in the institutions of American government – the very same institutions Mr. Trump has proven effective in criticizing.

Whether it’s inflation, crime, the pandemic or immigration, “it’s the same theme: that these big institutions, they’ve let people down,” he said. Border issues, for instance, are top of mind for midwestern voters even though they live far from Mexico.

Even before he became president, Mr. Trump was quick to grasp the border as an issue he could turn to his advantage. ”At the end of the day, it’s about a sense of fairness — and it drives a lot of voters even in a state like Ohio,” Mr. Chabria said.

In pursuing those political instincts, the former president has become arguably the most important figure in the Republican Party, which is remaking itself after his image in the policies it pursues and the often raucous way it pursues them.

U.S. midterm elections explainer

Voters across the United States head to the polls on Nov. 8,

to determine the makeup of both chambers of Congress

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

HOUSE OF

REPRESENTATIVES

All 435 seats up

for election

162

31

Democrats

Toss-up: 31

Republicans

189

22

Republicans need

to pick up six

seats to take control

Democrats currently hold

220-212 majority, with three vacancies

Majority: 218 seats

SENATE

35 of 100 seats

up for election –

14 Democrat,

21 Republican

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

Not up

9

3

36*

Democrats

15

4

29

Republicans

Toss-up: 4

Republicans need to

pick up one seat

to take control

Democrats currently hold

majority due to tie-breaking

vote of Vice President

Kamala Harris

Majority

51 seats

Data as of Oct. 11, 2022

*Includes two independents who vote with Democrats

graphic news, Sources: Cook Political Report; MultiState

U.S. midterm elections explainer

Voters across the United States head to the polls on Nov. 8,

to determine the makeup of both chambers of Congress

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

HOUSE OF

REPRESENTATIVES

All 435 seats up

for election

162

31

Democrats

Toss-up: 31

Republicans

189

22

Republicans need to

pick up six seats

to take control

Democrats currently hold

220-212 majority, with three vacancies

Majority: 218 seats

SENATE

35 of 100 seats

up for election –

14 Democrat,

21 Republican

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

Not up

9

3

36*

Democrats

15

4

29

Republicans

Toss-up: 4

Republicans need to

pick up one seat

to take control

Democrats currently hold

majority due to tie-breaking

vote of Vice President

Kamala Harris

Majority

51 seats

Data as of Oct. 11, 2022

*Includes two independents who vote with Democrats

graphic news, Sources: Cook Political Report; MultiState

U.S. midterm elections explainer

Voters across the United States head to the polls on Nov. 8,

to determine the makeup of both chambers of Congress

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

162

31

Democrats

HOUSE OF

REPRESENTATIVES

All 435 seats up

for election

Toss-up: 31

Republicans

189

22

Republicans need

to pick up six

seats to take control

Democrats currently hold

220-212 majority, with three vacancies

Majority: 218 seats

SENATE

35 of 100 seats

up for election –

14 Democrat,

21 Republican

Race ratings

Solid

Likely/Lean

Not up

9

3

36*

Democrats

15

4

29

Republicans

Toss-up: 4

Republicans need to

pick up one seat

to take control

Democrats currently hold

majority due to tie-breaking

vote of Vice President

Kamala Harris

Majority

51 seats

Data as of Oct. 11, 2022

*Includes two independents who vote with Democrats

graphic news, Sources: Cook Political Report; MultiState

Next week’s election is, in part, a referendum on that particular brand of politics, with its culture-war rallying cries and its willingness to deny ballot outcomes. Mr. Trump has endorsed a wide slate of candidates, some of them high-profile candidates for Senate, including Mr. Vance in Ohio, Mehmet Oz – better known as television’s Dr. Oz – in Pennsylvania and former NFL running back Herschel Walker in Georgia.

Polls suggest a tight race for the Senate, and the candidates carrying Mr. Trump’s endorsement are being closely watched as an indicator of his political future.

“If he were to lose those races, that might be the one thing that gives him pause to say, ‘You know what? Maybe my support is not what I thought it was,’ ” said Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff to Mr. Trump.

If, on the other hand, “those races go very well, they might encourage him to announce sooner rather than later.”

Mr. Trump has already seen success in shaping the Republican candidates running for the House of Representatives, who will ensure that Congress after the mid-terms looks “much more like Donald Trump,” said Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia scholar and a lead editor of the American Journal of Political Science.

Republican Congressional leaders will, she said, confront a choice. They can fight for the policies they have promised to ease inflation, reduce crime and make change at the border. Or “they can engage in a two-year revenge tour they hope is sufficient to win the presidency in 2024,” Prof. Lawless said.

“And that’s the path that Trump would probably prefer.”

Members of the Republican party have pledged investigations of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden, chief White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci and the Department of Justice. Some have also threatened to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

History has shown that hard-nosed Republican tactics can backfire, supporting the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012. Mr. Trump, too, “lost in 2020 in part because people were tired of him,” said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus scholar at University of California San Diego who has written extensively on U.S. politics.

Rancorous Republican leadership in Congress for the next two years risks souring voters on the party. For Mr. Trump, Mr. Jacobson said, the more voters are reminded “of why they didn’t appreciate him in 2020, the worse it is for him.”

At the same time, faith in Mr. Trump remains so steadfast among his most ardent supporters that he can expect little hindrance to once again becoming a presidential candidate, should he choose to pursue that, regardless of how the country votes next week.

“If he runs, I think it’s very clear that he will get the nomination,” said Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director under Mr. Trump, who has become an outspoken critic.

Mr. Trump, he said, cares most about money and attention. “Politics has given him both of those things,” he said. So when it comes to the next general election, in 2024, “if he can win it, he’s going to run. I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”

The Trump movement has been propelled by a cultural backlash against progressive forces that remains strong, both in the U.S. and other western democracies – bringing voters to candidates that Harvard scholar Pippa Norris calls authoritarian populists. Two years of hostile divisions in Congress “will magnify conspiratorial theories and the idea that politics are corrupt and that nothing can get done in D.C. — and, therefore, you need a strongman leader like Trump who can overcome,” said Prof. Norris, founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project and co-author of the 2019 book, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism.

Such an outcome, she said, will only further darken the outlook for a country whose system of government Mr. Trump has placed under pressure.

“We know there’s already been democratic backsliding. But that’s likely to get worse,” she said.

Mid-term results that show high levels of support for those aligned with Mr. Trump, she added, will carry great symbolic importance, “because they’re just one more indication of what’s gone wrong.”