WASHINGTON — Senior Republican Party leaders began urging their most imperiled incumbents on Wednesday to speak out about the wrongdoing surrounding President Trump, with a former House Republican campaign chairman warning, “Where there’s smoke, and there’s a lot of smoke, there may well be fire.”
Democrats face their own pressure to shed their cautious midterm strategy and hammer the opposition for fostering what Democratic leaders are labeling “a culture of corruption” that starts at Trump and cascades through two indicted House Republicans to a series of smaller scandals breaking out in the party’s backbenches.
One day after Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, implicated Trump in payoffs to two women before the 2016 election, and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of eight felonies, Republicans were concerned that the worst may be to come. By urging some candidates to speak out or at least stay silent, Republican leaders who gravely fear losing control of the House risked opening the first significant rift between the Trump White House and the Republican-controlled Capitol.
“Anybody who says this is not disturbing is not being honest,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoman and the former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, adding, “so my advice to any candidate would be: Keep your powder dry and don’t rush to attack or defend anybody because you just don’t know enough to have a reaction that you can still defend three months from now.”
On cue, Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida, called the accumulation of Trump-related scandals a “sad chapter in our country’s politics” and said that “no one is above the law.” Curbelo, in a tough reelection fight, also reproached the president for his caustic attacks on the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
“He’s making a major mistake by attacking the Mueller probe in such a personal way,” said Curbelo, who represents a district that Hillary Clinton won handily in 2016. “The best thing for everyone, especially if the White House is so confident that the president will be absolved in this process, is to let the process continue.”
Nearly as alarming to House Republicans were the mushrooming scandals in their own chamber, misdeeds that may dampen turnout among conservative voters.
Only hours after the conviction of Manafort and guilty pleas of Cohen, Representative Duncan Hunter of California was indicted on a charge of using campaign money to fund a lavish lifestyle, including the alleged purchase of golf shorts masked as a charitable veterans contribution.
Those charges came a few weeks after Representative Chris Collins of New York was arrested on charges of insider trading, something that has also tarnished a handful of his colleagues, including Representative John Culberson, an endangered Texas Republican. Collins and Hunter were Trump’s two earliest congressional supporters.
In Virginia, Representative Scott Taylor is accused of forging signatures to get an independent on the ballot this fall to help save his seat. And in Florida, Representative Vern Buchanan is accused of accepting a seven-figure yacht loan from a bank lobbying for last year’s tax cut, then purchasing the 73-foot vessel on the same day he voted for the measure he helped write.
“It has been a really bad August,” as Cole put it.
To date, Democrats have urged their candidates to conduct their own races and avoid a national campaign against Trump or the Republican Congress, except on carefully targeted issues like health care costs. Trump’s scandals, they argued, will play like background music that they do not need to accentuate.
But the summer eruption of apparent Republican malfeasance has some in the party arguing that Democrats should make corruption more central.
“There’s no way this won’t matter in a whole bunch of races out there, and Democrats need to be talking about this everywhere,” said Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, invoking the 2006 campaign, when “late-breaking corruption scandals, on top of an unpopular president, tipped the House and the Senate.”
Democratic strategists overseeing the midterm elections said they would use corruption against those Republicans tarred by any wrongdoing, but they were not yet convinced that focusing on what some in the electorate view as unending Washington drama would be more effective than highlighting policy differences.
“For a lot of voters, the Donald Trump circus is not enough to get them to vote Democratic in the midterms,” said Alixandria Lapp, who runs the main House Democratic super PAC.
Democrats also worry that employing a Trump-tinged message about corruption will only prompt more questions about whether they would use a new House majority to impeach Trump, a campaign that could rile an otherwise demoralized Republican base. Democratic leaders have studiously avoided the “I”-word .
“We need to see what Mueller comes up with,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said about the potential for an impeachment inquiry, allowing that “this is getting deeper and deeper, and it’s going to get more and more serious.”
As news of a Cohen plea deal was circulating, House Democratic leaders urged members on a private call to stay on message, avoiding the topic of impeachment. Instead, Democrats will cast themselves as offering a check on the president, a message that polling indicates voters respond to favorably.
Even as House Republicans suggested that their most at-risk lawmakers should tread gingerly around the president, some Senate counterparts taunted Democrats for trying to curry favor with Trump.
“You’ve got a number of red-state Democrats that are trying to get closer to the president,” said Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm.
Some Democrats said they had no immediate plans to highlight the payoffs to women. “If asked, I absolutely will talk about it,” said Senator Jon Tester of Montana, adding that it is not currently a front and center campaign issue. “I think people are still trying to sort through it.”