Republicans in tough races wrestle with Trump strategy

Republicans in tough races wrestle with Trump strategy
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House Republicans in tough reelection races are wrestling with whether to distance themselves from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? Russian lawyer who met Trump Jr. represented spy agency: report Poll: Most say Trump Jr. should not have met with Russian lawyer MORE, with it becoming increasingly likely that he'll emerge as the party's presidential nominee this fall.

Many of the lawmakers who played a role in expanding the House GOP majority in the 2014 elections have to determine whether Trump is an asset or a liability at home. 

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GOP lawmakers running for reelection in swing districts already have a steeper climb in presidential election cycles, when turnout among Democrats is typically higher than in midterm years.

But with the likelihood increasing of Trump becoming the GOP standard-bearer, party strategists are urging vulnerable incumbents to get ahead of the game and define themselves now.

Some centrists fighting to hang onto their seats are running away from Trump as fast as they can. But others in geographic regions that could be more favorable to Trump, including the Northeast, industrial Midwest and parts of Appalachia, may have reason to embrace the real estate billionaire.

"There's not a one-size-fits-all plan here," GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said. "The best thing all of them can do, regardless of their position, is to aggressively define who they are as soon as possible."

Given Trump's flair for controversy, candidates down the ballot could be in for a real roller coaster ride.

"Obviously the preference is to be supportive of the Republican nominee. But you also have the challenge of given the wildcard Trump represents, they're going to have to be very realistic in how they approach their individual districts," said David Winston, a GOP consultant who's served as a strategic adviser to House and Senate leadership.

Democrats would need to flip 30 seats in order to win back the House majority — a tall order even if a Trump nomination proves damaging to the GOP.

At least two of the most endangered House Republican incumbents are ruling out ever voting for Trump while casting themselves as mavericks.

"My community knows I’m an independent voice for the district. That’s one of the reasons I’m not supporting Donald Trump, because I’m not bound by party labels,” said freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), whose southern Florida district is majority Hispanic. “I’m running on my agenda, not on anyone else’s agenda.” 

Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), who represents the northern suburbs of Chicago, pointed to Trump's controversial remarks about Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain rivals praise senator after brain cancer diagnosis McCain absence adds to GOP agenda’s uncertainty Overnight Defense: Trump gets briefing at Pentagon on ISIS, Afghanistan | Senate panel approves five defense picks | Senators want Syria study in defense bill MORE’s (R-Ariz.) time as a prisoner of war as reason to reject him.

“For me, it’s personal. When Mr. Trump takes a look at John McCain and says he doesn’t appreciate or doesn’t think he’s a hero because he was shot down, he prefers the ones that weren’t shot down? My uncle was the second one shot down. Spent eight years and a day in captivity. So if he’s going to diminish the service of American heroes, for me that’s a disqualifier,” Dold said.

For now, the most vulnerable GOP lawmakers would rather keep the raucous GOP presidential primary at arm’s length. Multiple House Republicans in competitive reelection races abruptly declined comment when approached for this story.

Most of the roughly 30 House Republicans considered to have the most difficult races this year haven’t endorsed a presidential candidate, content instead to let the nominating process play out.

A handful of the vulnerable incumbents have endorsed Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE (R-Fla.) for president, including Curbelo and Reps. Mike Coffman (Colo.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Cresent Hardy (Nev.) and Mia Love (Utah).  

A small number of the endangered Republicans have signaled they would go along with Trump.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race, said he’d support the businessman if he wins the nomination.

“If he is our party’s nominee against Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonOPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? Russian lawyer who met Trump Jr. represented spy agency: report Poll: Most say Trump Jr. should not have met with Russian lawyer MORE, it’s a very easy decision,” said Zeldin, a freshman whose Long Island district was previously represented by a Democrat for more than a decade.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), another top target with a large Hispanic community in his district, hasn’t endorsed either, but didn’t rule out ever supporting Trump. At the same time, the third-term lawmaker sought to emphasize his own record for the district while noting that he won reelection when President Obama was on the ballot four years ago.

“I’ve always lived with the top of the ticket in my district. … No matter who’s at the top of the ticket, I continue to win by big margins,” Denham said. “So I don’t think this election’s going to be different.”

Even with incumbents' power of name recognition, GOP strategists warn that a controversial candidate like Trump could be a major liability.

“People need to demonstrate their independence and that they are voting in the best interest of their constituents,” said Rob Jesmer, a GOP strategist who previously served as executive director of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.  

But, he cautioned: “That is easier said than done.”