GOP fears damage to brand from Charlottesville

Republicans worry that their candidates could pay in the 2018 midterms for the continued controversy over President Trump’s remarks on the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump’s equivocation on how much blame should be put on white supremacist groups for the violence sets up a challenge that’s difficult for Republican candidates to avoid — and one that Democrats are eager to bring up.

Republican campaign chiefs raced to distance themselves from Trump’s decision not to single out white supremacists for condemnation, acutely aware of the potential damage the comments could have on the party's prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.  

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“It overshadows everything. If you are a Republican candidate and you have an event today, this will be the first thing you are asked about,” said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye, who has long been critical of Trump. 

“This is the attack on the Khan family, the attack on Judge Curiel, the birther attacks on [President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE],” he added, referring to Trump's more racially tinged controversies.

The stakes are already high for Republicans in 2018, as Trump’s dismal approval rating helps put the House into play and gives Democrats a lifeline despite a tough Senate map. 

But while polling has suggested that voters are more willing to separate Trump’s actions from his party, Republicans are concerned that Trump’s stance on the violence in Charlottesville will translate into lost votes, particularly from minority voters. 

“How do I tell an African-American friend or a Hispanic friend why the Republican Party is better for them than the Democratic Party?” Heye asked.

“I can talk about any policy that I think might help them, but they will just come back and say that the party does not care about me.”

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-Colo.) and Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the heads of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), respectively, were quick to issue statements disapproving of Trump's reaction to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last weekend that left one dead. 

Those statements underscore the delicate position that Gardner and Stivers now find themselves in as they try to insulate their party’s brand and candidates from being associated with Trump’s comments. 

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“It’s not helpful to the Republican Party and its brand. It reinforces a narrative that the left tries to apply to Republicans unfairly,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a prominent California Republican strategist who has worked on congressional campaigns.

“[Gardner and Stivers] are the leaders of our party going into the election, and they have to be a voice for all the candidates who are running in the House and the Senate. This is an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate leadership and that’s what they are doing ... it gives candidates cover when the chairmen of the NRCC and NRSC come out publicly.”

Trump injected himself into the center of the debate on Saturday by chastising “many sides” hours after a car was driven into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. A man with ties to a white nationalist group has been charged with second-degree murder in Heyer’s death.

After attempting to calm the storm Monday with remarks that declared racism “evil,” Trump reignited the issue during an eye-popping press conference on Tuesday.

Blaming what he called “alt-left” protesters as well as the white supremacists for the violence, Trump downplayed the intentions of the rally participants, noting that the white supremacists had obtained permits for the rally that counterprotesters crashed. 

“Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis, I’ve condemned many groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. 

“There’s blame on both sides.” 

Those comments drew criticism from many who questioned why Trump decided to liken white supremacist at the rally, some of whom assembled on Friday holding torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us," with those who came out to protest their views. 

Republicans have issued broad denouncements of white supremacy and racism since the weekend's events, but Gardner and Stivers went further to address their criticism directly to the president.

Gardner tweeted shortly after Trump’s initial remarks on Saturday with a call for the president to “call evil by its name.” Gardner doubled down during a Tuesday town hall after Trump’s press conference. 

“The president should’ve immediately denounced the racism, the bigotry, the hatred that he saw in Charlottesville,” he said. 

“The president should’ve done that immediately. And what he did today again goes back on what he said yesterday, and that’s unacceptable.”

Stivers issued a statement from his official office Tuesday afternoon criticizing Trump’s response to the violence.

“I don’t understand what’s so hard about this,” Stivers said. “White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn’t be defended.”

The comments from the Republican campaign chiefs give candidates cover if they wanted to condemn Trump, too. 

In the minds of Democrats, the GOP condemnations are coming too late. They’re labeling organizations like the NRSC and NRCC as happy to ride Trump’s electoral coattails for almost a year despite repeated racial controversies.

“Their lack of moral clarity helped set the stage for the disgusting display that we witnessed at Trump’s unhinged press conference, and House Republicans must be held accountable along with the President,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Tyler Law said in a statement to reporters. 

Hours after releasing that statement, the DCCC sent reporters another release that accuses a smattering of vulnerable Republicans of helping to “pave the way for President Trump’s racially charged presidency.”

“Their hollow Tweets have been an insultingly weak response to Trump’s equivocating on white supremacists and Nazis, but it’s sadly not surprising," Law said. 

Republicans are keeping an eye on whether Trump’s remarks will tarnish the GOP’s brand. 

“It’s not about what people inside Washington, D.C., think, it’s what the rest of the country feels,” Heye said. “Whatever his approval rating remains with Republican voters is going to be very determinative.”