Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

Trump effect splits Senate and House GOP candidates

President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE is looming large over the midterm elections, and GOP candidates are scrambling to either maximize or minimize his impact, depending on their races.

Republican candidates, particularly those running in contested Senate primaries, are rushing to embrace Trump, who is highly popular with the party base.

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GOP candidates in targeted House districts, however, are often distancing themselves from Trump, who threatens to rev up angry Democrats and turn off independents. 

In contested Senate primaries in Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin, GOP candidates are portraying themselves as Trump loyalists or likeminded outsiders ready to take on the D.C. political establishment.

In House races, especially where Republicans are looking past the primary to the general election, candidates are busy establishing an independent brand to survive a possible Democratic wave in November.

“It’s a tale of two cities in terms of the Senate and the House,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “In the battle for the Senate, the potential pickups are in states where Trump is very popular.

“In the House, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan. If you’re in a rural area, you’re running to Trump,” O’Connell said.

In suburban areas, GOP candidates “are running more on their own name,” he added.

In West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is in a three-way fight for the Senate GOP nomination, has a new ad in which he declares, “Let’s not just change Washington, let’s blow it up and reinvent it.”

Morrisey has the backing of a pro-Trump super PAC, 35th PAC, and is touting his meeting with Trump on Thursday in White Sulphur Springs to “discuss issues important to all West Virginians.”

Don Blankenship, the former chairman of Massey Energy, who is running against Morrisey and Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE for the nomination is trying to style himself as the most Trump-like candidate in the field. 

In an ad last month, Blankenship compares himself to Trump, calling himself a true job creator and attacking Jenkins as a past supporter of cap-and-trade emissions controls and state laws that helped implement ObamaCare.

“Trump looms pretty large over the state’s politics at the moment,” said Patrick Hickey, a professor of political science at West Virginia University.

“They’re all sort of trying to run as the Trump candidate,” he said of the Senate GOP field. “Blankenship has embraced Trump looking at his commercials. He’s trying to tie Jenkins to Democrats and say he isn’t a real anti-establishment Trump Republican like he is.”

In Indiana, the site of another fiercely contested GOP primary, Rep. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaIndiana governor asks state Supreme Court to review law giving legislators greater emergency powers Judge strikes down several Indiana abortion provisions Federal judge will not block Indiana University's vaccine mandate MORE has a new ad bashing his opponent, Rep. Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserLobbying world K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Yoder, Messer land on K Street MORE as a faux Trump supporter.

Rokita dons a “Make America Great Again” hat and declares, “I’ll proudly stand with our president and Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBiden leading Trump, DeSantis by similar margins in new poll Best path to Jan. 6 accountability: A civil suit against Trump Biden trails generic Republican in new poll, would face tight race against Trump MORE to drain the swamp.”

Meanwhile, he accuses Messer of having “plotted” with  so-called never Trump Republicans in 2016 to steal the nomination and blasts his other opponent, state Rep. Mike Braun, as a “RINO” — a Republican in name only.

Braun has his own ad featuring two cardboard cut-outs of Rokita and Messer and portraying himself as an outsider businessman, drawing a parallel with Trump. 

In Wisconsin, Marine Corps veteran Kevin Nicholson and state Sen. Leah Vukmir are both portraying themselves as strong Trump allies.

Nicholson has highlighted his support for Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, seeking advantage from Vukmir’s initial support for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Fla.) and then Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzProgressive millionaire group backs Cisneros, McBath in first public endorsements Manchin and Sinema must help Biden make the Supreme Court look more like America Flake meets with Erdoğan in first official duties as US ambassador MORE (R-Texas) during the primary race.

Nicholson has also criticized Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R), a fellow Wisconsinite, for not embracing Trump more enthusiastically.

In North Dakota, Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerDemocrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks Wicker: Biden comments on Ukraine caused 'distress' for both parties Biden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions MORE (R) is hewing closely to Trump and attacking incumbent Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDemocratic ex-senators join pro-gas organization 11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies MORE (D) for voting with the president only a majority of the time.

“Here’s the good news about Donald Trump: Most of the time, he’s for North Dakota, and that’s my point where I’ve heard her say, ‘Gee, I voted with him 55 percent of the time,'” Cramer told a local radio host.

“Can you imagine going home and telling your wife, ‘I’ve been faithful to you 55 percent of the time'? Are you kidding me? Being wrong half the time is not a good answer.”

A major difference between Senate and House races is that Republicans are mostly playing offense in states that Trump won by big margins in hopes of expanding their Senate majority, while they are playing defense in more than 20 districts won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE in order to keep control of the lower chamber.

The dynamic is much different in districts that Clinton carried in 2016, where GOP candidates are trying to build up their own brand by standing up to Trump.

“You’ve got to create your own brand in your district, something that’s not necessarily Washington,” said Jim McLaughlin, a GOP consultant and public opinion expert. 

He said it’s important to appeal to Trump voters and give them a reason to vote in an election where party turnout will be important but that vulnerable House candidates also must “talk to swing voters and let them know what you’re doing is better than your opponent.”

One of McLaughlin’s clients, Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloProtecting the freedom to vote should be a bipartisan issue Former lawmakers sign brief countering Trump's claims of executive privilege in Jan. 6 investigation A conservative's faith argument for supporting LGBTQ rights MORE (R-Fla.), hasn’t hesitated to call out Trump when he thought he was wrong.

Curbelo criticized the conservative immigration-reform bill drafted by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing The job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line MORE (R-Va.) and backed by Trump as “deeply flawed” and an “insufficient solution” to help young illegal immigrants facing deportation.

Curbelo has also called on Trump to fire Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump's relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook Understanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official MORE and last year even suggested that Trump could be impeached if found guilty of obstruction of justice.

Clinton beat Trump by 16 points in Curbelo’s district.

In Virginia’s 10th District, which Clinton won by 10 points, incumbent Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockRomney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney Some in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump The Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out MORE (R) has also distanced herself from Trump when she felt it necessary.

She clashed with Trump at a White House meeting in February after Trump said he would “love to see a shutdown” if Democrats didn’t agree to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She told Trump bluntly, “We don’t need a government shutdown on this.”

Comstock also distanced herself from the president after he characterized Haiti, El Salvador and African countries in disparaging terms during the immigration debate.

“What we need now is not division or discord, but finding a way we can come together and agree, as well as civilly disagree, as we tackle our diverse American challenges,” she said at the time.

“Both Carlos Curbelo and Barbara Comstock have their own brands in their districts and they connect with the average person,” said McLaughlin.

He said voters in Florida’s 26th District don’t view Curbelo “in terms of partisan politics.”

“This guy is Mr. Miami, Mr. South Florida. They view him as someone they can talk to,” he added.

Rep. Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado remap plan creates new competitive district Colorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' MORE (R-Colo.), who is running in another pro-Clinton district, has criticized Trump’s threats to shut down the government over the border wall and his support for a military parade through Washington, an idea that has drawn comparisons to the practices of former Soviet bloc dictators.

“No shutdowns, no parades. We need to focus on what moves us forward — cleaning up the #VA, fixing #DACA, securing our borders, and growing wages,” he tweeted in February.

More recently, Coffman pressured Trump to fire Veterans Affairs Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinFormer VA secretaries propose National Warrior Call Day to raise military suicide awareness Biden's nominee for VA secretary isn't a veteran — does it matter? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress slogs toward COVID-19 relief, omnibus deal MORE because of his controversial travel expenses.

At the same time, GOP strategists warn that even candidates in pro-Clinton districts can’t afford to alienate base voters in more liberal-leaning districts.

“In Republican primaries we’re seeing historically high support for the president in everything he does,” said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who spent Wednesday touring with Rep. David KustoffDavid Frank KustoffHouse GOP seek to block Biden from reopening Palestinian mission in Jerusalem READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Lobbying world MORE (R-Tenn.) through his conservative district.

Kustoff is running for reelection by running toward Trump, featuring the president on his campaign literature.

“It’s OK to have a disagreement with the president from time to time, but what’s not okay is to run away from him as leader of the party and president,” Saltsman added.

Even Curbelo, who hasn’t been afraid to disagree with Trump, said he would welcome Trump campaigning for him in his Democratic-leaning district.

McLaughlin said, “You got to get your base motivated and you got to give those new Trump voters a reason to vote between now and Election Day.”