Mueller emerges as villain in Republican campaigns

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's investigation is emerging as a new litmus test in key Republican Senate primaries. 

GOP hopefuls locked in nasty primary fights are increasingly denouncing the Russia probe as they try to position themselves as the candidate aligned closest with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE.

The volleys against the special counsel — who has been investigating potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign for nearly a year — come at a time when elections in several battleground states have entered a crucial stretch. 

Rep. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaHillicon Valley: California eyes tough net neutrality law | Trump taps chief for DHS tech research arm | Huawei hits back at US restrictions | Republican wants Google antitrust probe | Ex-cyber worker charged with trying to sell stolen tech House Republican urges regulators to probe Google for antitrust violations These three Democrats are no sure thing in November MORE, who is in a heated three-way primary in Indiana, appears to be the first Republican Senate candidate to include Mueller in a TV spot, telling GOP voters he will “fight the Mueller witch hunt” if he wins. 

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The ad unfavorably compares the former FBI director, who is widely respected in the Beltway, to House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiBoogeywomen — GOP vilifies big-name female Dems Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances New Dem ad uses Paterno, KKK, affair allegations to tar GOP leaders MORE (D-Calif.) and Democratic Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Hill's Morning Report: Dems have a majority in the Senate (this week) Schumer to meet with Kavanaugh on Tuesday Supreme Court nomination reignites abortion fights in states MORE (Ind.), saying they are using “fake news to try to destroy our president.”

Rokita’s ad is just one example of Republicans trying to outdo each other to be the most pro-Trump candidate in a Republican primary. 

Rep. Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserFreedom Caucus members see openings in leadership Republicans top Dems at charity golf game Immigration overhaul on life support in the House MORE, one of Rokita’s rivals in the primary race, is one of five GOP Senate hopefuls to sign on to a letter nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. Rokita, in turn, announced he plans to introduce a House resolution for Mueller to either end his probe within 30 days or hand over a status report to Congress that includes an expected end date.

“No one in government should be without accountability, and for many Americans, this investigation looks more like an attempt by the Washington elite to destroy President Trump with innuendo, leaks, and baseless allegations than to provide justice,” Rokita said. 

The ascendance of GOP anger at Mueller on the campaign trail comes as the White House and Trump’s legal team are stepping up their attacks on the investigation.

“This is certainly I think a distraction, but I think it’s a distraction to the American people,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. 

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), a new addition to Trump's legal team, told Fox News that “the basis of the case is dead. [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions should step in and close it.”

Amid Trump’s attacks, Republican voters appear to be souring on Mueller’s investigation.

Nearly half of Republican voters view Mueller’s probe unfavorably, a 19 percent increase since March, according to a NPR–PBS NewsHour–Marist poll released last month. 

A majority of GOP voters don’t believe Trump should fire Mueller, according to a separate Quinnipiac University poll, but 61 percent say the special counsel’s probe is unfair; 82 percent say it is a “political witch hunt,” and 74 percent would oppose legislation preventing Trump from firing Mueller.

While candidates aren’t explicitly saying Trump should fire Mueller — a red line few Republicans are willing to cross — they are taking a different tack from Republicans already in office. GOP lawmakers have urged Trump for months to let Mueller finish his investigation.

Incumbents Republicans up for reelection who don’t face heated fights for their own party’s nomination have taken a somewhat softer tack against Mueller.

Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThe farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape Battle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest MORE (Nev.), the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection, told Nevada reporters that while he doesn’t want Trump to fire Mueller and he believes the investigation should be “thorough,” he wants “them to get this over with.”

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz calls out O'Rourke for supporting NFL players' anthem protests Beto O’Rourke: Term limits can help keep politicians from turning into a--holes Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' MORE (R-Texas), asked about the leaked list of questions Mueller has for Trump, called it “deeply concerning” and warned Mueller against going on a “fishing expedition.”

“The early warning signs in the special counsel investigation were when Bob Mueller filled the team with partisan Democratic prosecutors,” he told a Texas radio station. “History has taught that the problem with special prosecutors … is over and over again they become fishing expeditions.”

Underscoring the potential disconnect between the primary fights and the looming shift to the general election, the Republican National Committee blasted out a note to reporters on Thursday arguing that the Russia election won’t matter in November.

“It’s not the never-ending Russia investigation, White House palace intrigue, or the President’s tweets. It’s the economy, stupid!” the GOP campaign arm said, pointing to polling from Morning Consult that showed Americans were most concerned about economic issues. 

But that’s done little to quell growing rhetorical fire from GOP Senate hopefuls.

Each of the candidates in the final Indiana GOP primary debate called for the investigation to end, with Rokita adding that Mueller either needs to “show his cards or fold his hand.”

Most of the Republicans hammering Mueller and the Russia investigation are running in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election, a list that includes Indiana.

In Montana, another state won by Trump, Troy Downing, who is competing in a four-way Senate primary, said Mueller’s probe has gone “on too long, no collusion, needs to end!”

Michael Flynn — Trump’s former national security advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and is reportedly working with Mueller’s probe — is set to campaign with Downing on Sunday. 

Anger over Mueller’s probe was also apparent during a nationally televised debate between three Senate GOP candidates in West Virginia, where primary voters will head to the polls next week. 

Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsMore than 50 Dem House challengers outraise GOP incumbents Key Republican says House taking targeted approach to combating opioid epidemic Dem candidate denies W.Va. is racist for rejecting Obama MORE said Mueller should “end this investigation now.” Meanwhile Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, while sidestepping if he believes Trump should fire Mueller, added: “I think it needs to come to an end. It’s a witch hunt.”

A third West Virginia candidate, former coal CEO Don Blankenship, who was released from prison less than a year ago, touted his own clash with the Justice Department to say he understands Trump’s frustrations.

“You know I’ve had a little personal experience with the Justice Department,” he said to laughter and applause from the audience. “They lie a lot, too. ... The Mueller investigation should end.”