Trump Shakeup Has Some Republicans in Congress Ducking for Cover

Who Is Stephen Bannon?
  • Shift back to anti-establishment tone may prompt defections
  • Conservative Republicans buoyed by hiring of Breitbart chief

Donald Trump’s campaign shakeup and new plan to run more directly against the Washington establishment could force more defections by mainstream Republicans who are increasingly worried about preserving their House and Senate majorities.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional Republicans will be under added pressure to decide whether to stick with Trump or campaign more openly to keep Congress in Republicans hands as a check on a future President Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, Trump’s decision to hire Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of crusading right-wing website Breitbart News and a former Goldman Sachs banker, as chief executive of his campaign has buoyed the most conservative Republican lawmakers, who are eager to see the real-estate mogul stay the course that helped him triumph in the Republican primaries.

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Either way, the changes complicate what was already a difficult task for congressional Republicans to defend their majorities in both chambers and hold together a splintering party. 

Under Bannon, Breitbart News has targeted establishment Republicans, including former Speaker John Boehner. As part of Trump’s move, the Republican presidential nominee plans to restore a full-bore anti-establishment tenor to the campaign, ending sporadic efforts to moderate his tenor and reach out to skeptical Republicans and independents, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Pressure on Fence-Sitters

Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who made clear in early August that he won’t be voting for Trump, said Bannon’s hiring could push some Republican congressional fence-sitters to take a firm stance on Trump.

"It might give them more incentive to make a decision one way or the other," Dent, co-chairman of a group of about three dozen House centrists, said in a telephone interview. 

"It will be kind of hard to just try and not say anything," he said of Republican candidates. "It just seems to me that this campaign has been largely run by the candidate himself and this shake-up is just another indication of disorder ahead."

But Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina called Trump’s move a good prescription for worried congressional Republicans.

"To suggest that we need to go with more of an establishment type of campaign really would be to ignore everything that is happening in the world, and certainly in Washington, D.C.," said Meadows, a founder and leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which played a key role in ousting Boehner and since has challenged Ryan on several legislative fronts. "There’s a reason why millions of Americans on both sides of the aisle feel they want an outsider -- whether that would be Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump."

Meadows added, "I think an anti establishment campaign is just want the doctor ordered -- whether in North Carolina, California, or Illinois." He said even voters in California and Illinois -- two areas less conservative than his own state -- "know Washington, D.C. is broken." He said the Trump campaign for the last two or three weeks, in particular, has seemed "off course."

Party Unity

The shift in tone will probably make it harder for Ryan to pursue his stated goal of bolstering party unity by uniting around a set of policy plans.

"This is sure not a plea for party unity," joked Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, in Poughkeepsie, New York. 

Aides to Ryan declined to comment. 

Meadows said that Trump shouldn’t be thinking about making the Republican establishment happy as he works to win the White House.

"People are looking for something different, even if they disagree with some of the rhetoric," said Meadows. He said the addition of pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager will be able to provide to the Trump campaign "some credence in terms of what matters to most people."

‘Frustration and Anger’

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia said what Trump "is reflecting, and what I support, is the frustration and anger that has come across the nation" over the inability of government leaders as a whole to address challenges in many policy areas, such as health care and education.

"That’s what he’s tapped in to,” said Price. “That’s what the American people are embracing.”

But Price conceded that not all congressional Republicans have constituencies that necessarily see things that way, and these candidates know they must calibrate their local strategies accordingly.

"Individuals down-ballot have a constituency that is by definition more narrow than the nation. People run the races they have to run," said Price, saying the same goes for Democrats. "I respect that and know Mr. Trump respects that as well."

Unclear Effects

There are no solid signs yet that Trump is heavily influencing potential congressional race outcomes across the nation, said Miringoff of the Marist Institute.

"Here’s the dilemma. There are going to be some people who vote for Donald Trump," said Miringoff, creating a challenge for Republican candidates who oppose him. On the other hand, for some Republicans who draw too close to Trump, there’s the danger that he either gets clobbered in that district, or he depresses Republican voter turnout.

"This totally could make things more difficult," he said.

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