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Russia raises problems for GOP candidates

Russia raises problems for GOP candidates
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE’s controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin is raising new concerns for Republicans less than four months before the midterm elections, threatening to overtake more favorable campaign issues for candidates.

Trump continues to face bipartisan backlash after appearing to cast doubt Monday on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

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Trump has tried to do damage control, saying Wednesday no president has been tougher on Russia, but also saying the country does not pose a threat to the United States.

The furor threatens to overshadow issues that Republicans are eager to run on, including touting Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh or attacking Democrats over their calls to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Putin summit controversy also comes amid special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which continues to cast a shadow over the White House and Republican candidates.

But GOP candidates in top races are not abandoning the president and strategists say Republicans will remain with Trump unless his favorability among conservatives takes a big hit over the Russia controversy.

“Of course, there are concerns. But ultimately, Republican voters will determine how Republican politicians react,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “If his numbers stay where they are, there is no reason to think that any members will break with Trump. They may put out yet another ‘strongly worded statement,’ but there will not be any real fallout, and members will just hope we’re talking about something else soon.”

Since the Putin summit, most GOP candidates have issued statements directly condemning Russia and stating they believe U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessments that Russia meddled in the presidential contest.

But they have largely avoided criticizing the president — aside from a handful of GOP lawmakers — instead praising Trump for his willingness to improve U.S.-Russia relations and pursue national security issues of mutual interest, while largely training their fire on the media for focusing on 2016.

  The praise for Trump was particularly notable in statements from Republican candidates who still face heavily contested primaries where loyalty to Trump is key.

In Arizona, GOP establishment favorite Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — GOP faces ‘green wave’ in final stretch to the midterms Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach MORE issued a statement that recounted Trump’s work to prevent “Russian aggression” by enacting sanctions, expelling Russian diplomats and working with NATO. But she added that she wished Trump’s words on Monday “were as strong as his actions.”

Meanwhile, former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, a fervent Trump supporter who’s dinged McSally over what she describes as lukewarm support for the president, heaped praise on Trump for keeping his campaign promise to thaw U.S.-Russia relations. They face off in Arizona’s Senate primary Aug. 28.

“During the 2016 election,

@realDonaldTrump promised the American people he would mend Washington’s icy relationship with Moscow & keep the U.S. out of foreign wars. Ignore the #TrumpDerangementSyndrome crowd - he’s keeping his promise & more importantly he’s keeping us safe,” Ward tweeted early Tuesday.

And in Wisconsin, both Republican Senate candidates Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson released statements commending Trump for the meeting. The Wisconsin primary is Aug. 14.

Some Republicans believe the issue could resonate more in competitive House races, where the GOP faces more uncertain prospects than in the Senate.

In the House, Republicans are looking to protect their fragile majority. The GOP holds a two-seat majority in the Senate, but Democrats are on defense with 10 incumbents up for reelection in states Trump carried in 2016.

The impact could be especially acute for two California members in competitive races.

Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherMidterms in 2018 become most expensive in history Dems target small cluster of states in battle for House GOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters MORE (R-Calif.) is seen as vulnerable since he has had a reputation for years as one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress.

Rohrabacher said Tuesday that in 2015 he met with Maria Butina, who’s been charged with being a Russian agent.

  Meanwhile, Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesJuan Williams: Trump, the Great Destroyer The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — Latest on Hurricane Michael | Trump, Kanye West to have lunch at White House | GOP divided over potential 2020 high court vacancy Senate Dem: Trump's 'fake, hyperbolic rantings' an insult to real Medal of Honor recipients MORE (R-Calif.), House Intelligence Committee chairman, has been an ardent supporter of Trump during the investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

Some Democrats are already using the summit as an opportunity to take aim at Trump and condemn their Republican rivals for not showing more support for U.S. intelligence agencies.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the well-funded Texas Democrat running an uphill battle against GOP Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzProtesters confront Cruz at airport over Kavanaugh vote O'Rourke targets Cruz with several attack ads a day after debate Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage MORE, went the furthest by saying that Trump’s performance at the summit warrants impeachment.

  But Republicans warn that Democrats could also face their own political ramifications in states where Trump remains popular when it comes to attacking the president.

Democrats have mostly steered clear of talking about Russia or Mueller’s probe on the campaign trail. The party has instead focused its messaging largely around health care and preserving ObamaCare as well as campaigning against the GOP’s tax overhaul.

Democrats in more conservative states are taking a more measured approach over the Putin summit than O’Rourke. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said she was “highly disturbed” by Trump’s performance. In a deeper-red state, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) said he believed the intelligence agencies but didn’t mention Trump.

For now, Republican strategists say GOP candidates will likely seek to weather the political storm — while hoping other issues will come back to the fore closer to the midterms.

“If we end up having a summer full of indictments and additional Mueller news, I think Republicans who have been lock, stock and barrel with him are going to be in a tougher position than they think,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who’s been an outspoken Trump critic.

But Wilson added “specialty” issues like Russia will always take a back seat for voters.

“Jobs and the economy always outweigh the specialty issues,” Wilson said.