With the Iowa caucuses just 55 days away, Republicans are beginning to see Trump as a dire threat to their majorities on Capitol Hill. And they’re warning that the GOP poll leader, who this week called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, will cause irreparable harm to the party.
From vulnerable senators to top party officials, the fear is palpable and bursting into public view. Congressional Republicans face a tough 2016 landscape even without Trump. Senate Republicans are clinging to a four-seat majority as they defend 24 seats versus just 10 for Democrats. And House Republicans are expecting to lose roughly a dozen seats in 2016. Trump’s rhetoric, they fear, could cause those losses to grow substantially.
“This is not what we’re about as a party, and this is not what we’re about as a country, and we cannot yield to this,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is charged with electing Republicans to the House, said Tuesday. “It puts, certainly, competitive seats in jeopardy. We’ll have a much more difficult time.
He added, “People have to be very careful about what they say at all times. And this, as Speaker [Paul] Ryan said today, this is not what we’re about as a party; this is not what we’re about as a country.”
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the NRCC’s deputy chairman in charge of helping reelect embattled GOP incumbents, was more blunt
“It would be devastating to our attempts to grow our majority and would cost us seats,” Stivers said in an interview. Trump “would cost us seats. There are people that couldn’t win if he was our nominee.”
In the Senate, where the majority is even more tenuous, lawmakers are practically running from the question. Asked about Trump, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he makes a practice of avoiding commenting on presidential politics. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, up against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in what’s expected to be a very competitive race, refused to discuss Trump.
“I focus on what I do every day in my job,” Ayotte said. “He can focus on his presidential campaign.”
Still, she quickly moved to distance herself from Trump’s policy position on Muslim immigration. Ayotte has also cosponsored a bill that would require foreigners, who would normally be able to travel to the United States without a visa, to apply for one if they had recently traveled to Iraq or Syria.
“I don’t think there should be a religious-based test for our immigration standards,” Ayotte said. “It should be a fact-based risk assessment on our immigration system, which is what we have. … [W]e need to enhance that system to make sure we address the risks of those who have, of course, connected or tried to connect with ISIS, and/or have traveled to Iraq and Syria.”
A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment about the widespread angst that the candidate has instilled on Capitol Hill.
The fear is real, because the party is seemingly powerless to stop his stubborn lead in most polls. Many congressional Republicans have been hesitant to criticize him, cognizant of his appeal to the populist elements of the party.
But his suggestion that the United States bar Muslims from entering into the country has heightened concerns about the potential damage he is doing to the party’s electoral prospects in the near and long term.
“Nothing will impact our majority more than who we nominate for president,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chaired the NRCC in 2005 and 2006. “The correlation between presidential votes and House votes is higher today than it’s ever been in American history, so we all have a vested interest in advancing the strongest nominee that we can.”
He said, “I think it’s very hard to put a great deal of distance between yourself and your presidential nominee in either a winning or losing year. … At the end of the day, you have to recognize the presidential nominee of both parties has the biggest megaphone out there other than the president himself.”
Trump, of course, is far from a sure bet to clinch the nomination. But as long as he remains a force in the nomination fight, other Republicans are forced to respond to his rhetoric instead of spending time criticizing the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents a swing district that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, said Trump’s comments “have to be condemned.”
“Are these comments helping us as a party? No,” Dent said. “Running political campaigns and winning elections is an exercise in addition, not subtraction. … When comments are made that are so divisive that alienate women, Hispanics, the disabled, Muslims — it just simply limits your ability to win. It’s that simple.”
The best hope, according to conversations with more than 10 Republican lawmakers, is that voters begin to realize Trump doesn’t represent the Republican Party — a risky gamble, given the commanding lead over the field Trump has maintained for months.
“I think when we denounce him as the buffoon that he is, voters have to decide,” said Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who recently endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio. “You have everyone from the speaker of the House to both conservative and moderate Republicans, in addition to all the Democrats, denouncing [Trump].”
“This man is simply not representing the views of mainstream America,” Issa added, “when he calls for a religious group to be particularly sectioned out. … As much as people like much of what he’s saying, they have to question the fundamental values of somebody that would say that.”
Top Republican leaders are already trying to draw a line. House Speaker Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 vice presidential nominee, broke his longstanding silence on the 2016 race, saying Trump’s comments do not represent conservatism. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is equally hesitant to wade into the presidential nomination contest, said the real estate magnate’s comments were “completely and totally inconsistent with American values.”
But other lawmakers are less concerned. Iowa Rep. Steve King, who endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said Trump sparked an important discussion about immigration. King said he doesn’t agree with Trump’s position on barring Muslims from the country but said, in the end, it won’t hurt the party.
“One service we know he’s provided is he’s opened up the topic so that we can have a legitimate discussion,” said King, a staunch opponent of immigration reform. “I’m glad for that. I thank him for doing that.”
Original article on Politico