Trump's Swipe at Martinez Alarms GOP
Donald Trump’s efforts to coalesce the GOP around his candidacy were going well. He charmed lawmakers during a recent visit to Capitol Hill, began to make inroads with House Speaker Paul Ryan, won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, and generated enthusiasm among holdouts with a new round of polls showing him tied with Hillary Clinton, whose party is facing its own unity challenges.
Then he went to New Mexico.
At a rally in Albuquerque, he lashed out at Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for the state’s economic troubles and the rising number of residents on food stamps. “It’s your governor’s fault,” Trump told the crowd of thousands. “She’s not doing the job.”
It was a hit heard ‘round the political world. Martinez is considered a party star: she’s the first Latina Republican woman governor who won as a conservative twice in a blue state with a large Hispanic population. She chairs the Republican Governors Association and is often mentioned as a vice presidential possibility by Republicans aiming to improve the party’s standing among Hispanic voters and women.
Martinez’s apparent offense? She had not yet endorsed Trump and declined to attend his rally there on Tuesday night.
It isn’t like Trump has never criticized a member of his own party. After all, he has been propelled to this point by a positive response to his rants against politicians and politics as usual. But his decision to go after Martinez, a figure who could help expand his support in the general election, not only threatens party unity, but also signals consequences for Republicans reluctant to board his train--and for candidates hoping to distance themselves from him.
“Trump was sending a message to her and to other Republican elected officials around America that this is what you come in for if you part ways,” says Joe Monahan, who writes a popular political blog in Albuquerque. “There has been a bevy of economic problems in this state that have not received a lot of attention, and Trump put it on her lap, front and center.”
Trump supporters defended the remarks, arguing they demonstrated the candidate’s ability to stand up to colleagues to get the job done. Surrogates argued the move was borne out of Trump’s frustration that Republicans, including Martinez, are slow to get on board with him, the candidate voters have chosen.
Martinez has been conservative on immigration policy and worked to repeal a state law granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. She joined Republican governors in opposing President Obama’s proposal to bring Syrian refugees to the United States. But she has also been critical of Trump’s tone and approach when it comes to the Hispanic community, including his proposal to build a wall along the southern border.
“The governor will not be bullied into supporting a candidate,” her press secretary said in response to Trump’s remarks. “Governor Martinez doesn’t care about what Donald Trump says about her.”
The flap came as a State Department Inspector General report criticized Clinton for using a private email server, an issue, among others, that Republicans hoped Trump would seize upon to unite Republicans.
“In addition to highlighting divisions in the party, it’s simply a distraction from the main target, which is Hillary Clinton and her record,” says Republican Strategist Ryan Williams, who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
"If you're going to attack, the only names you use are Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama,” says Republican strategist Henry Barbour.
"Both sides need to demonstrate more discipline,” Barbour said of Trump and elected Republicans. “The voters have spoken very plainly in our primary, and Trump is our nominee. And if we want to keep Hillary Clinton from winning the White House, then we need to coalesce behind the nominee."
Martinez is one of many GOP figures holding out. House Speaker Ryan still isn’t ready to endorse Trump, and told reporters that he doesn’t have a timeline to get there. The two had plans to speak by phone Wednesday night.
Asked about Trump’s criticism of Martinez, Ryan said, “I’ll just leave it at this: Susana Martinez is a great governor. She turned deficits into surpluses; she cut taxes. She’s a friend of mine and I think she’s a good governor.”
Former presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio came to Martinez’s defense on Twitter, calling her “one of the hardest working and most effective governors in America.”
While Martinez is considered a rising star, she has also invited controversy. The FBI launched an investigation into one of her political consultants but later dropped it. Last year, police were called to Martinez’s hotel room to respond to a noise complaint from a party she was hosting there. A police recording captured her confrontation with officers.
The idea that Trump would condemn Martinez so forcefully and publicly is perplexing to Republicans who believe she could be a key resource for Trump in helping to expand his reach beyond his core base of support. While strategists acknowledge Trump plays by a different rulebook in politics, they still maintain that he will need to court and retain various constituencies.
“It impacts every Republican, especially incumbents, running for re-election this year,” former House GOP Leader Tom DeLay told MSNBC about Trump’s hit on Martinez. “I have no other word for it: it's just stupid politics ... and it just blows my mind. Where is he going to get his coalition to win?”