The man House Republicans picked to lead them back to the majority made clear Thursday that the party wants to make the 2020 elections a “choice between socialism and freedom.”
GOP Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota urged reporters at a breakfast roundtable event to ask where vulnerable members stand on “socialized medicine.” He dropped the words “socialism” or “socialist” six times in one minute. And he nicknamed House Democrats the “Red Army.”
It was another sign that Republican leaders in Congress have adopted the style of President Donald Trump, attempting to brand all Democrats as socialists.
But some Republicans are wary that the National Republican Congressional Committee has gone too far in mimicking the President. The group has attacked congressional Democrats as crooks, losers and liars, and given them sobriquets reminiscent of Trump’s own tweets attacking his rivals, like Little Max Rose, Lyin’ Lucy McBath, Greedy Dan McCready and Fake Nurse Lauren Underwood.
Some criticism coming from Republicans
The NRCC’s brutal tactics have drawn notice and some consternation from Republican politicos.
When asked about the NRCC calling Democrats socialists, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican born to Cuban parents, said that Democrats have proposed policies that would have “in essence, the government run our lives.” But when asked about the personal attacks, Diaz separated himself from them, replying, “ask me about what I say.”
Some Republicans have taken particular issue with calling Rose, an Army veteran, “Little.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told Politico that he was “bothered” and “disappointed” by it. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin told The New York Times it was “stupid” and “counterproductive.” Former Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida said on Twitter, “@tomemmer this isn’t you.”
On Thursday, Emmer responded to the criticisms by going on the attack, saying at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that Rose’s behavior was “extremely childish” when he said that House Democrats did not pass a campaign finance, voting and ethics law for “s**** and giggles.”
A Republican strategist who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank argued the NRCC’s messaging has become lazy and unfocused.
“They’re trying to follow the Trump model of rhyming nicknames and taglines, but that only works for the President,” the strategist said. He added that “hitting hard requires substance and strategy,” not just bluster.
“House Democrats are experiencing the worst identity crisis in a generation, with a leftward lurch that could give Republicans incredible opportunities around the country,” the GOP strategist said. “Unfortunately, the NRCC is not equipped to capitalize because they’re too busy getting in petty fights on Twitter.”
Emmer disagrees with Trump crowd on Omar
Trump’s brash strategy may work for him in 2020, but it could jeopardize the suburban House districts that the party lost in 2018 and needs to win back. Earlier this week, Trump thrilled his ardent supporters by calling for some Democratic congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” But many Republicans in Congress viewed the racist remark as unacceptable and were dismayed to see Wednesday night that some in a crowd at a Trump rally chanted about Rep. llhan Omar of Minnesota, “send her back.”
“There’s no place for that kind of talk,” said Emmer on Thursday before defending the president. “There’s not a racist bone in this President’s body.”
The NRCC has hit back at Democrats who criticized the President’s comments, blasting out emails calling Congressmen “deranged” for supporting Pelosi’s charge that Trump was racist.
There are lower-profile challenges too. Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, the NRCC recruitment chair, announced last month that she would not seek reelection, which shone a spotlight yet again on the party’s dismal efforts to elect women. And some members were annoyed when the NRCC blasted Democrats for pushing for a pay raise for staffers and congressmen when they were trying to strike a deal.
“Sometimes in large organizations having everyone be aware of what’s going on at the same time is a challenge,” said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. “I think the leadership of the NRCC has been very responsible.”
Supporters say NRCC doing what it takes
Former senior NRCC officials said that the group is doing what is necessary to win back the House.
Mike Shields, a CNN political commentator and a former top NRCC official when Republicans took back the House in 2010, said the press team has to be ruthless to get “earned media” to support challengers who don’t have the benefits of a congressional office.
“They are as aggressive, if not more, than we were then — and that’s exactly right,” Shields said. “That’s what it takes.”
“Some people in DC who want to clutch their pearls over it just have literally no idea what it takes to get a story placed in a Chicago newspaper or an Atlanta newspaper,” he added. “No clue.”
Ian Prior, a former NRCC spokesman, recently wrote in The Washington Times that the committee has raked in fundraising, landed some impressive recruits and reached an agreement with other Republican groups to create the digital platform WinRed to compete with the Democrats’ massively successful ActBlue. He also turned his sights on the Republican critics of NRCC this cycle.
“Unfortunately, this kind of ‘friendly’ fire from other Republicans is extremely unhelpful,” he wrote. “It distracts and ultimately hurts the committee’s core functions — recruiting quality candidates, raising money and aggressively defining Democrats.”
Political perspective determines what’s over the line
In interviews with strategists and political officials, it was clear that the line over what is fair in political combat is typically viewed through a partisan lens.
The NRCC recently cheered on the US woman’s national soccer team while mocking the civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick all in the same tweet — and then the next week sent a fundraising email of his image that critics allege was altered to make Kaepernick’s skin darker.
Democrats including Rep. Cedric Richmond, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the fundraising email featuring Kaepernick was a racist attempt to incite Republicans to give more money.
But Chris Pack, the NRCC communications director, said the Democrats were completely off-base. The NRCC did not alter the image “in any way,” and it was “published as-is from a graphic design vendor,” he said.
Former NRCC chairman Tom Reynolds took a historical view in assessing the political rhetoric of the cycle.
“I think the whole dynamic of this thing has changed,” he said. “If you look at the civility of Congress and the ability of working together — some of that stuff has deteriorated at every level of government.”
“I would also say to you that history says that we’ve seen members of Congress pull guns and hit their fellow colleagues with canes,” he added. “Right now we’re in the verbal era.”