The double lives of vulnerable House Republicans
Vulnerable House Republicans have to lead double lives these days if they hope to hang on.
Take Dave Brat. At a private fundraiser in early September, the Virginia Republican joked to a roomful of Republicans about how he mimics archconservative House Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan on Fox News when discussing the FBI’s Russia investigation. He then encouraged Sebastian Gorka, a controversial former adviser to President Donald Trump, to get involved in Brat’s campaign to gin up the base, according to a recording of the private event obtained by POLITICO.
But in TV ads, Brat has touted his work on issues that transcend party lines. One of them features images of puppies playing with children, and a narrator touting the congressman’s work “to stop a federal agency from conducting cruel medical research on dogs.”
The two sides of Brat, a member of the Freedom Caucus, highlight the dissonant strategies House Republicans are deploying in their struggle to keep the House. As national Republicans implore endangered members to localize their races and tout bipartisan victories, hard-liners are urging them to embrace the president to get Trump voters to the polls.
Survival might ultimately depend on Republicans successfully doing both — not an easy feat since Democrats are reminding voters of their ties to Trump at every opportunity. But the conundrum is clear: GOP office-holders in swing districts can’t afford to repel independents by appearing too cozy with Trump, yet they also need Trump’s followers to turn out in force.
“I would argue it’s best in the vast majority of congressional seats to nationalize the election,” Jordan, a guest speaker, told the crowd during the fundraiser for Brat in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 7, according to the recording. “And even in those swing districts you still have to embrace the president. Maybe not as much in Dave’s as in ours” — Jordan represents a solidly Republican district in Ohio — “but I think it’s important we run toward the president.”
The advice is quite different from that being given by Republican leaders, who as recently as three weeks ago encouraged vulnerable members to run hyper-local races, focusing on their legislative accomplishments and de-emphasizing the president.
Instead of choosing one path or another, many Republicans appear to be trying to do both, adjusting their tones depending on the audience.
Democrats have held up partisan comments Republicans have made to base voters as evidence that their more moderate tone toward independents is phony.
“While House Republicans are struggling to publicly distance themselves from their own records,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Democrat-aligned super PAC American Bridge, “behind closed doors they’re doubling down on an extreme, partisan agenda that would keep selling out America’s middle class and working families to the richest taxpayers.”
At the Sept. 7 fundraiser, Brat was clearly targeting the partisans. Jordan opened the evening by praising Trump, an introduction occasionally interrupted by shouts of of “build the wall!” and “lock her up!”
Jordan argued that House Republicans need to do more to help Trump advance his agenda, a message sharply different from the one Brat’s Democratic challenger, former CIA agent Abigail Spanberger, is delivering.
“In 18 months, under his leadership, regulations have been reduced, taxes have been cut, the economy is growing at 4.2 percent, unemployment is at its lowest in 20 years, [Neil] Gorsuch is on the court, [Brett] Kavanaugh is going on the court, we’re out of the Iran deal, the Embassy is going to Jerusalem and the hostages have come home from North Korea,” Jordan said. And as for the rest, like building the wall, “what we have to do in the Congress is support him more in getting those things done,” he said.
Brat applauded Jordan, adding that he’d “be a good speaker.” Then he launched into a story about how he recently parroted Jordan, an FBI and Russia investigation critic, on TV.
“They had me go on Fox today; I had to talk about the dossier and all that stuff,” Brat, a former economics professor, said. “So I got all nervous because I just know economics. So last night I did what any rational person would do: I got a press conference with Jim Jordan speaking the day before and copied it today on the news. It went real well!”
The room cheered.
At one point, Gorka, who’s been criticized for his anti-Muslim commentary and far-right positions, asked Brat what Republicans around the nation could do “in addition to opening checkbooks” to help him keep his seat. Brat found his campaign manager in the crowd and told Gorka to get in touch with her.
“You can make calls for me in the district,” Brat told Gorka. “You can write op-eds in the district. You can get young people to go on social media and light it up and help me out.”
Neither Brat nor Jordan responded to requests for comment. Gorka responded by insulting POLITICO.
Brat isn’t the only vulnerable Republican who’s welcomed help from his friends on the far right while trying to hold off a blue wave from the left. Jordan has been raising money and stumping for other Freedom Caucus conservatives in tough races.
He’s appeared with many of them at fundraisers or events aimed at turning out Republicans. In recent weeks Jordan sent emails soliciting donations to help Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Rod Blum (R-Iowa), all top Democratic targets.
Yet these same conservatives have campaign ads highlighting work on bipartisan and non-controversial issues. Budd in TV ads talks up his support for legislation addressing opioid addiction. Perry touts his work on behalf of veterans. Blum speaks about being a small business owner.
“Ted Budd cared enough to show up and listen,” Hope Thompson says in one ad. The advocate found her 18-year-old daughter dead in the bathroom from a heroin overdose in 2016. “Ted Budd is pushing for the laws that are going to make things better.”
During a recent event with Republican women in Southern California, Republican candidate Diane Harkey described the predicament she’s facing in trying to succeed Darrell Issa in a swing district. According to a recording obtained by POLITICO, Harkey said, “We need to get the Trump voters out” and tried to brainstorm ways to do it while also attracting independents.
“In order to hold this election, we’re going to have to get Republican voters to vote at least 2 percentage points higher than they normally do in a midterm,” she said. “You know, Trump voters are not really excited to turn out. Hopefully, we can get them to turn out… they’ll turn out for the presidential; they won’t necessarily turn out for this.”
Harkey proposed that local Republicans make the election about Democrats potentially trying to impeach Trump and roll back the GOP tax cuts.
Jordan has encouraged Republicans to go even further. At the Brat event, he suggested that GOP leaders were in part to blame for Republican Rick Saccone’s loss to Conor Lamb in a Pennsylvania special election earlier this year. Their sin: running “cookie cutter traditional campaign” ads accusing Lamb of being a Pelosi puppet.
“Why not in Western Pennsylvania put Rick Saccone in a picture next to President Trump every single day?” Jordan asked, as the crowd cheered. “There were 101,000 less Trump voters who showed up in that special election than showed up in 2016.”
Conversely, in an August special election in Ohio, Jordan said Trump saved the Republican candidate, Troy Balderson, by holding a rally for him just before Election Day.
“Even in these suburban districts,” Jordan said, “you still have to run toward the president to bring our team out.”