A Luxury for Some in GOP: Embracing Trump
While many Republicans running for re-election are figuring out creative ways to distance themselves from their party’s presumptive nominee—some are even reluctant to speak his name—others are fully embracing Donald Trump.
These lawmakers delight in the prospect of sharing a ticket with their new standard-bearer, even if he figures to be radioactive for others in the party. Trump has energized dormant GOP primary voters, speaks directly to issues like trade and job loss that have impacted their constituents, and has effectively disrupted the political system, they say. All of this, plus the potential for a congressional campaign to fundraise off the new nominee’s impassioned support, could benefit some candidates down the ballot.
Trump’s candidacy “represents a movement,” says New York Rep. Tom Reed, a House Ways and Means Committee member who endorsed Trump in March. “He is resonating with people in our district. … There is really an appetite for ‘enough is enough’ and that resonates with me.”
Reed represents a Republican-leaning swing district that spans the southern tier of New York. Barack Obama eked out a victory over John McCain there in 2008, but Mitt Romney won it narrowly in 2012. In last month’s primary, Trump swept all the counties in the district—as did Bernie Sanders.
“That speaks volumes about their energy and [the lack of] support for Clinton,” Reed said of Sanders’ victories in his district. “Donald Trump is representing an energy in the Republican Party.”
Reed, who is considered a more centrist member, is still cautious about Trump’s rhetoric. Since endorsing in March, the day after the Florida primary, Reed said he expressed to the campaign a concern with the candidate’s rhetoric and tone. “That has consequences, and he's running to be the leader of the free world,” he said. Still, the benefits abound.
Others enthusiastic about having Trump atop the ticket include lawmakers from much more conservative districts, but with similar demographics. Fellow New York Rep. Chris Collins, who has taken on the role of Trump’s Capitol Hill liaison, says members should be excited to run with the presumptive nominee.
“I am being thanked,” he says of his constituents. “I’m at Home Depot, the grocery store, the post office, and folks coming up to me, in many cases they will self-identify, saying, ‘I’m a Democrat and thank you for supporting Mr. Trump.’ It’s jobs jobs jobs.”
Collins, whose district includes the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, doesn’t have to worry about his seat and has plenty of incentive to run with Trump. “That anger, that angst and that frustration is still alive, and those folks that elected me county executive, who elected me [to Congress] with 65 percent of the vote are going to give Donald Trump 65 percent of the vote this year.”
There may be no delegation as excited about Trump as the Republican lawmakers from West Virginia, a state essentially tailor-made for the populist candidate in terms of demographics, issues, culture, and a changing political landscape on the local level. (Republicans are also likely to win the governor’s mansion, which will complete the party’s takeover of state government in recent years from Democrats.) Romney beat Obama by 26 points, and many expect Trump to outperform that margin.
Rep. Alex Mooney, who chaired Ted Cruz’s campaign in the state, is happy about the idea of Trump animating voters in rural areas, and believes his candidacy can help cultivate a deeper bench of state politicians.
“Grassroots activists that need to raise money to get the vote out will use his name,” Mooney said. Candidates there would be incentivized to campaign with Trump, though he isn’t likely to spend much time in the Mountain State, given its reliability as a win. “If he came to do an event for me, it would be great [for fundraising],” Mooney said when asked about the idea. “It would be huge turnout.”
“I’m pleased,” Rep. Bill Shuster, who represents central Pennsylvania and chairs the committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said of sharing a ticket with Trump. “Just as people who have come out to vote who haven't voted [before] are energized, I think the same thing happens with the giving of dollars.”
But few candidates are in such a position to benefit from—or at least do themselves no harm by—campaigning with Trump. “If you are in a state any bluer than North Carolina, you don’t want to take the risk,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes elections for the Cook Political Report. “Trump will activate the voters he activates on his own. Those voters aren’t going to be voting Democrats.”
Wassermann also noted that this cycle, candidates could potentially have an easier time distancing themselves from the nominee, if needed.
“Republicans haven't nominated a candidate who is totally outside of politics in a long long time,” he said. “So whereas Democrats could make the case that McCain or Romney was part and parcel of the top, and each Republican should be tied [to them] … it’s harder to make that case with Trump, because he’s all over the map and voters see him as something different from politics.”
The measure of Trump as a liability or an asset will be better taken as the election nears and the race becomes more defined. Some candidates have the benefit of knowing now how Trump will place in their districts.
“I’m happy he's on the top of the ticket because I'm happy he’s the presumptive nominee,” says North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, the first woman in Congress to endorse Trump. “But, it really is based in the type of district [candidates] have and the type of race they are experiencing.
“Some say they feel it might hurt their chances, and I don’t buy into that. I believe you run based on our record and how much you have stood up for your constituents.”
Ellmers hails from a conservative district and is in a comfortable position when it comes to re-election. But she acknowledges the vulnerabilities Trump may expose for her colleagues, particularly among women voters.
“We are all aware of comments he’s made in the past, and he has said things I certainly can’t condone, of women and men,” she said. “I can’t quite figure it out, but he’s made it this far. He’s the lone man standing, the presumptive nominee.” Ellmers said she decided to back Trump after talking with her constituents who were supportive. “It was talking with voters the week before the primary that I realized he was the one I was going to vote for,” she said. “It was a very positive response to him, and I felt in the conversations I was having, especially with women, they see him as someone strong, successful and [who] has gotten results.”
Republican lawmakers and officials have been coming around to Trump more quickly than expected, given the divisiveness of the primary and a continent of party members who insist they’ll never support him. There appears to be a realization among candidates that they will be bound to Trump anyway, as ticket splitting becomes less common and the attack strategy is all too easy for Democrats.
Members of leadership are slowly coming around as well, though perhaps not as forthrightly as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who signed up to be a Trump delegate at the convention.
“Ultimately, as we go along, support is going to continue to grow,” predicted Ellmers. “[Trump] will be the head of our party moving forward. The more unity we can gain, the better.”