Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), campaigning at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, was asked if pressure Trump put on public officials in Georgia to overturn the election was “anti-American.” At a press conference the same day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was also forced to field questions about the indictment. Both Republicans instead criticized what they described as a weaponization of the legal process.

Operatives within the party were less evasive. With Trump doubling down on his stolen-election rhetoric — and his decision to schedule a media event about it two days before the first Republican debate — the consensus was he is all but guaranteeing his GOP rivals would be forced to spend time on stage next week talking about an issue that continues to divide the party.

“This is Politics 303: Mind Games and How Campaigns Fuck With Other Campaigns,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “You do something, you make an announcement — they’re just trying to dominate the news going into the debate and get everyone to defend him.”

But, Carney said, it’s a terrible position to be in for anyone trying to win 2024 for Republicans. “If our party is talking about 2020, we’re going to lose,” he said.

For Trump’s rivals in the primary, there’s no avoiding the question now.

Pressed on whether he had listened to the recorded phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump urged the GOP election official to “find 11,780 votes,” Scott said, “Yes, but we just draw different conclusions.” He declined to answer whether he, as president, would have made the same request of Raffensperger.

DeSantis called the indictment “an example of this criminalization of politics.”

Trump’s opponents have every reason to be wary of the issue. Though election denialism may be fraught terrain for the party in a general election, in recent Republican primaries, the electorate has most often rewarded those who side with Trump on it.

After Trump’s defeat in November 2020, majorities of Republicans told pollsters they agreed with his claims that the election was stolen. And more recently, a New York Times/Siena College poll last month found three-in-four GOP primary voters said they thought Trump’s actions only reflected “his right to contest the election.”

Sarah Longwell, a Trump-averse Republican strategist who has chided his opponents in the field for not forcefully criticizing him, said focus groups she has conducted show Republican voters are divided on Trump’s 2020 election claims. But as much as half of the GOP primary electorate are fine with the idea of re-litigating the last presidential election, she said.

“Part of the reason he’s leaning into this with his press conference is he only wants people talking about this, and talking about him,” Longwell said. “The other candidates are going to have to talk about it, because it’s going to be the dominant issue in our politics. And it’s how Trump walks to the nomination.”

The problem, as Longwell and others surmise, is that stop-the-steal-style media events won’t do Trump or the party any favors in a general election with independent voters in swing states like Georgia and Arizona.

“Trump’s news conference Monday may set a record for the eyeroll emoji-use in iPhone and Android,” said Barrett Marson, a GOP strategist in Arizona. “Who’s going to believe this wacky bullshit?”

Trump’s revival of questions about the 2020 election represents a subtle but significant shift in his own messaging. Despite spending months after his November 2020 loss talking nonstop about the election being stolen from him, Trump so far in his 2024 bid had leaned less heavily on the issue.

The majority of his political operation’s Facebook ads have focused on the notion that the rule of law has been corrupted because of the prosecutions of him, and his fundraising appeals have similarly focused on the current court cases against him, rather than 2020 results.

The X (formerly known as Twitter) account Trump Fundraising Emails, the which tracks all solicitations put out by the campaign, spotlighted just one message in the past three calendar years that explicitly said the 2020 election was “stolen.” That came in late December 2022. By and large, the person who operates the account told POLITICO, the current focus of the Trump fundraising team is warning that prosecutors and the Biden administration’s Department of Justice are trying to steal the next election.

The fallout from Trump recentering his message on an allegedly stolen 2020 election is already expanding beyond the presidential primary field, touching all corners of the GOP. Running in Senate primaries ahead of what are forecasted to be difficult races against Democratic incumbents in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia, GOP candidates Tim Sheehy, Bernie Moreno and Jim Justice quickly rushed to Trump’s defense on Monday and Tuesday.

Inside the Capitol on Tuesday, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) claimed there was no way to be sure whether Trump won Georgia, as he has falsely asserted.

“I don’t know. And the problem is, I don’t think we’ll ever know, because there were legitimate issues,” Griffith told a reporter.

In Georgia, in particular, the issue remains fiercely divisive in the Republican Party. Former chair David Shafer — one of the 19 who was indicted Monday — declined to run again. But other new leaders elected during the state GOP’s June convention are vocal defenders of Trump’s stolen election claims.

On the other side of the schism, Gov. Brian Kemp won his primary in a landslide over Trump-backed challenger David Perdue last year despite firmly rejecting Trump’s claims of a stolen election. On Tuesday, he hit back at the former president’s latest claims of a rigged contest in Georgia.

“The 2020 election in Georgia was not stolen,” Kemp wrote on social media. “For nearly three years now, anyone with evidence of fraud has failed to come forward — under oath — and prove anything in a court of law.”

He reiterated that Georgia’s elections were secure and fair.

Few states have felt the consequences of Trump’s election fraud grievances more acutely than Georgia. Republicans there lost two Senate seats in a January 2021 runoff as Trump and his allies cast doubt on the legitimacy of the state’s election systems. And a third Republican running for Senate, Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker, lost his race in November 2022, even as Kemp and down-ballot GOP candidates cruised to victory.

“It’s not a winning message,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County, Ga., Republican Party. “It’s been shown to be a losing message.”

Kelvin King, a Republican who ran against Walker in the May 2022 Senate primary, said a key component of the GOP in Georgia starting to win big federal races again is moving on from allegiance to Trump and an obsession with stolen elections.

“I think it hurt Donald Trump,” he said. “And if we step backwards and lead with that same argument, we’re missing what’s on people’s minds.”

Steven Shepard and Sam Stein contributed to this story.