Aides to President Joe Biden had braced for the Republican candidates to pile on the Hunter Biden attacks during the first primary debate. His campaign even drafted a rapid response press release on the issue.
They never had to send it out.
For months, “Where’s Hunter?” and “Biden Crime Family” has become a rallying cry of the right. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is signaling he may move forward with an impeachment inquiry against the president this year over alleged corruption related to Hunter Biden’s activities.
But in the 2024 primary, the controversy surrounding Hunter Biden is falling flat. Instead, there is a growing recognition within some corners of the GOP — and among former President Donald Trump’s rivals, significantly — that the issue may not resonate as much as they once hoped, and that fixating on it could only help Trump.
“The reason Trump’s opponents aren’t talking about it is because talking about Biden corruption and problems plays right into Trump’s entire narrative,” said Gregg Keller, a Republican strategist in Missouri.
While the former president and his allies have seized on Hunter Biden to cast Trump as a victim of unfair treatment by the federal justice system as compared to Biden’s son, none of his opponents in the primary are similarly facing criminal indictments. For those Republicans, Keller said, “I’m not surprised they’re not talking about it.”
Or as Chuck Coughlin, a veteran political strategist in Arizona, put it, “Do Republicans realize when they bring up the Hunter Biden stuff that they’re just helping Trump?”
“Why do Trump’s work of defending Trump — bringing up the Biden comparison — when Hunter Biden’s going to get the book thrown at him, anyway?” Coughlin said.
So far in the primary, they’re not spending much time on it — even amid a conservative media ecosystem that devotes segment after segment to allegations that Biden had profited from his son’s business dealings.
Mentions of “Hunter Biden” on Fox News and Newsmax shot up this summer, compared to earlier in the year, though references to the president’s son peaked on the networks in July, according to an analysis by the Democratic-aligned Media Matters for America. To date this year, “Hunter Biden” has been mentioned on air on the two conservative channels more than 16,400 times, including over 2,300 times per network in July. That was the month a sentencing agreement was called off on two tax charges and a firearm possession charge Biden faced; he has pleaded not guilty on the tax charges.
The noise surrounding Hunter Biden was so loud that in the run-up to the first primary debate, prominent mainstream media outlets predicted the Biden family drama would feature noticeably on stage. “Expect to Hear a Lot About Hunter Biden in GOP Debate,” read one headline. “Inevitable Hunter Biden tirades” forecasted another.
But by the end of the night, just two passing references were made to the president’s son, and the Hunter Biden pile-on never materialized. Instead, the candidates attacked the president on inflation and economic policies, on his response to the Maui fires, on his age, on his southern border policies and on his handling of Ukraine aide.
The omission was not a one-off, but a reflection of a broader calculation in the campaign that the average American would rather hear them talk about something else and that the red-meat Hunter Biden drama may not be as salient a political issue for the party as some leaders have projected.
“There is a consistent majority belief that Hunter Biden behaved unethically, inappropriately — doesn’t really matter how you ask it — wrong,” said Chris Jackson, head of public polling for Ipsos. “But it doesn’t look like people outside the Republican base are blaming Joe Biden for that or saying that it indicates some kind of problem with Joe Biden.”
An adviser to one Republican presidential campaign said this week that candidates purposely aren’t spending much time talking about impeaching Biden — or the Hunter Biden connection to that inquiry — because, as of now, the plan is not even a sure thing with the Republican-controlled House.
“It doesn’t have the votes,” said the adviser, granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “You risk looking ineffective by saying, ‘We should do this.’”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told ABC News this past weekend that Hunter Biden is “not on the ballot.” And on the biggest stage of the primary so far, the first debate, he did not appear to be alone in that assessment.
The debate hosts from Fox News never asked about the president’s son or possible impeachment proceedings — despite the cable network relentlessly covering Hunter Biden on its regular programming — signaling the issue may not be as resonant with an audience wider than regular conservative news viewers.
Public polling suggests there may be little upside for Republican candidates to harp on the issue. An Ipsos/ABC poll in early August found 39 percent support for the House launching an impeachment inquiry against Biden (compared to 38 percent against). That’s in contrast to 51 percent of Americans in November 2019 — a month before Trump’s first impeachment trial began — saying his actions on Ukraine were wrong, and he should be impeached and removed from office, Ipsos found.
Roughly half of independent voters supported the Trump impeachment, Jackson said, versus a third of independents at this stage ahead of a potential Biden impeachment effort. An Associated Press poll conducted in mid-August found that just 6 percent of respondents described Biden as corrupt, criminal or crooked in an open-ended question, as opposed to 15 percent who said so of Trump.
Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters who closely tracks Fox News coverage, said it’s not surprising that Fox News resisted diving into the Hunter Biden saga on debate night, when viewership was much broader than for the network’s normal evening programming.
“If you do not have a Ph.D. in Sean Hannity studies or watch his show every night, it’s basically totally incomprehensible for a normal person,” Gertz said of Fox News’ typical discussion of the Hunter Biden storyline. “It’s difficult to shoehorn into a debate.”
Coughlin, who left the Republican Party after Trump’s election, said most anyone following the situation has “concluded Hunter Biden is a very troubled soul, and has done some stupid shit.”
But in the face of voters’ continued economic concerns, a fentanyl problem at the border and other kitchen table issues, moving ahead with a still-flimsy impeachment case against the president, Coughlin said, is not going to convince persuadable voters, including unaffiliateds and soft Republicans.
“The last cycle was a debacle enough, and this would only add to that, to the narrative that they’re out of touch and they’re not interested in governing,” Coughlin said of the GOP.
“There’s always that Republican core base, 30 percent of the primary electorate that’s always going to gobble up all of this stuff, all of the time,” he said. “But that’s it. There’s nobody else they’re going to persuade with this argument.”