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Endangered Republicans gamble backing Trump after guilty verdict as vulnerable Democrats remain cautious

Rep. Mike Garcia leaves a candidate forum with House Republicans on October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For more on how vulnerable Republicans are grappling with former President Donald Trump’s conviction, watch “Inside Politics Sunday with Manu Raju” at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. ET.

Former President Donald Trump lost Rep. Mike Garcia’s district by more than 12 points four years ago. And that was before he was convicted on 34 felony charges.

But that doesn’t mean the California Republican is abandoning Trump.

“No,” Garcia said when asked if the conviction shook his confidence in his party’s standard bearer. “I mean, the alternative is Joe Biden. There’s obviously no way I can support four more years of Joe Biden.”

Garcia is hardly alone. In many bellwether districts that will determine the next House majority, including in the 19 GOP districts Biden carried in 2020, Republicans are quickly falling in line behind Trump.

And they’re echoing his line that the New York hush money trial was unfair and that he’s a victim being persecuted, aligning with a riled-up base and effectively gambling that swing voters won’t punish them for backing a felon at the top of the ticket.

“My district is full of very smart people with a firm grasp of reality,” said Rep. John Duarte, a fellow California Republican whose district Biden carried by 13 points four years ago. “They can smell bullsh*t.”

In past eras of politics, candidates in difficult races would be quick to distance themselves from a presidential contender with a hint of baggage – let alone one who has been convicted of a crime. But in the Trump era, Republicans have calculated that it pays dividends to stay on the team as vulnerable House and Senate Democrats are tiptoeing around Trump’s conviction – and keeping their distance from Biden.

Yet while GOP party committees are seeing a surge of fundraising after the verdict, senior Republicans are wary that going too far over Trump’s legal woes – and embracing his talk about retribution against his enemies – could overwhelm their message in the fall as they try to woo disaffected Biden voters who will be central to holding onto their narrow majority in the House.

“I think we need to be focused on the issues that the American people care about: The economy, open border, and crime,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House GOP’s campaign arm. While he called the verdict a “political hit job,” Hudson added: “I think this election ultimately is going to be decided on the issues.”

House Democratic leaders say they are more than happy that vulnerable Republicans have defended Trump after the guilty verdict.

“I think the ones who fall in line are Republicans who seem to do everything to show their blind loyalty to Donald Trump,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington state, who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “People want folks who are going to stand up for their communities, who are going to stand up to govern, and who are true voices for their community.”

George Whitesides, the Democratic candidate seeking to defeat Garcia in the fall, said that his GOP foe’s handling of Trump’s conviction is an issue he will hammer home.

“It is remarkable that Mike Garcia who says he’s supportive of the American law enforcement system has no concerns of someone who has been convicted of 34 felonies,” Whitesides said. “I can tell you the people of the 27th District of California have huge concerns about it.”

Garcia said that the choice boils down to “Joe Biden who’s the worst president in the history of the country” and someone “who’s got a proven track record, pro-security, pro-law enforcement,” referring to Trump.

Several other vulnerable members made clear where they stood.

“Well, he’s the Republican nominee. I’m the Republican,” said Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, whose Oregon district Biden won by eight points in 2020, confirming she’s sticking with Trump after his conviction.

Rep. Mike Lawler, whose New York district Biden carried by 10 points, sharply criticized the prosecution against Trump. And he pointedly said: “I already said I am” when asked if he still backs Trump at the top of his ticket.

“Look, the process itself will play out in court,” Lawler told CNN. “But again, when you have an election that will be determined by the American people, a nomination that was determined by Republican primary voters, you respect the process.”

Rep. John Duarte is seen in front of the US Capitol in Washington DC, on November 8, 2023. Celal Gunes/Anadolu/Getty Images

Endangered Democrats sidestep on Trump verdict

Vulnerable incumbent Democrats are taking a different approach – particularly House members from districts that Trump carried and Senate Democrats in red and purple states.

They are saying little about the verdict as they try to court Trump voters, instead trying to raise character concerns about their GOP opponents while campaigning on economic issues like prescription drug prices and social issues like abortion.

In Ohio and Montana, two states that Trump carried twice, GOP candidates Bernie Moreno and Tim Sheehy are attacking Democrats Sherrod Brown and Jon Tester over the conviction. Sheehy is already up with a campaign ad accusing Tester of standing by prosecutors who are trying to “throw Trump in jail.”

In an interview last week, Tester struck a neutral tone when asked if he agreed with the verdict.

“What I agree on is nobody is above the law,” Tester said. “He went through the process, trial by jury of his peers. And he has right to appeal it.”

Asked about GOP demands that he condemn the verdict, Tester said: “Look, the Republicans think that I’m the one who sat on the jury, for Christ’s sake, OK? They’re grasping at straws on that one.”

Brown said even less.

“I’ve put out a statement,” Brown said last week. “I said what I said.”

In that statement, Brown also said that “no one is above the law” and that “it’s up to the legal system to sort” out before voters ultimately decide in November.

Other vulnerable Democrats were also cautious.

“The jury made a decision and that’s their decision,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, when asked if he agreed with the verdict. “And we’ll see what the next step is.”

Rep. Richard Hudson and Rep. Stephanie Bice speak to one another on November 2, 2023 in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

GOP divide over Trump’s talk of retribution

In the days following Trump’s conviction, Republicans have brought forward an onslaught of proposals, including to defund federal and state prosecutions targeting Trump, threatening a government shutdown and a longshot impeachment of Biden.

Those actions and rhetoric have some Republicans worried that the party could get itself off message ahead of November.

GOP Rep. Nick LaLota, a Republican running in a competitive New York district Biden won in 2020, cautioned his Republican colleagues against engaging in a “tit-for-tat” revenge scheme that reaches beyond targeting Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

“We shouldn’t overreact or misreact by acting upon things that had nothing to do with this hasty trial,” LaLota, who rallied behind Trump after the verdict, told CNN.

And Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is close to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, warned his GOP colleagues that it would be a “big mistake” to shift their focus away from kitchen table issues like the economy and the Biden administration’s border policies as Republicans face the final stretch to November.

“Those are the key issues that are driving voters in November,” Tillis said. “Why on earth, we would shift our attention away from that, for any sort of quick fix on this decision doesn’t make sense to me.”

Right-wing members, however, have gone full steam ahead in throwing their entire congressional and messaging weight behind Trump in the wake of his conviction.

In a closed-door meeting with the GOP conference on Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson presented a three-pronged approach for how Republicans could use their majority in the House to go after the Department of Justice and state prosecutors, according to multiple sources.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan also outlined his proposal for defunding federal and state prosecutions targeting “political opponents,” which he also detailed in a letter.

While Johnson has previously dismissed calls to defund key parts of the DOJ – a move that would be dead arrival in the Senate – Jordan said he believes Johnson has been warming up to the idea in recent days, especially after Trump’s conviction.

Separately, GOP Rep. Chip Roy suggested to CNN that initiating a government shutdown fight should be “on the table,” in the wake of Trump’s conviction.

“I’ll walk into the election, and I’ll message that,” Roy said.

One of Trump’s loudest supporters on the Hill, GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, marched into Johnson’s office later Tuesday with an accountability list of her own, including a long-shot effort to impeach Biden.

“Republicans across the country, and many Americans in general, are sick and tired and fed up with a feckless, useless Republican Party and conference that does nothing,” Greene said after her meeting with Johnson.

Republicans in this camp believe there is no limit to how hard they can lean in to talking about Trump’s conviction and see the Trump verdict as a golden ticket.

GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican hardliner from South Carolina, said Republicans would “absolutely” retaliate against Trump’s political enemies after November, including prosecutors.

“What they’ve done is, is weaponized process,” Norman said. “What they’ve done is wrong, against the Constitution. That will happen.”

CNN’s Sheden Tesfaldet and Morgan Rimmer contributed.

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