Politics

Political Reaction to Comey Strikes Familiar Pattern

Democrats see opportunity, Republican responses vary

FBI Director James B. Comey’s firing has appeared to knock the issue of the GOP health care bill off the front pages. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

BY BRIDGET BOWMAN AND SIMONE PATHÉ

CQ Roll Call

A familiar pattern emerged after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey: Democrats pressured Republicans to weigh in, vulnerable Republicans tried to distance themselves, and others stayed quiet.

With the 2018 midterms still 18 months away, political operatives in both parties say it’s difficult to predict what issues will dominate the campaigns. But what followed Comey’s dismissal suggests that both parties may be continuing strategies they developed during last year’s elections: Democrats seek to tie Republicans to Trump, and Republicans try to stay above the the fray of the ever-changing news cycle. 

Less than 24 hours before Comey was dismissed, some House Republicans were grappling with blowback from the GOP health care plan pushed by Trump. But at least for now, that issue has been knocked off the front pages.

Republicans weigh in 

Comey was overseeing an Justice Department probe into whether Trump’s campaign team was connected to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. His firing raised questions about the future of that investigation.

Democrats cried foul. They accused the White House of interfering with the probe.

Republican reaction varied, with some of the more vulnerable members criticizing the timing.

Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock said in a statement that she “can’t defend or explain” Comey’s firing and called for an independent investigation into the alleged Russian meddling. Hillary Clinton carried Comstock’s district by 10 points in 2016, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her race Leans Republican.

New York Rep. John J. Faso, whose race is rated Tilts Republican, said the firing was “shocking.” The freshman Republican said if Comey’s replacement is not acceptable to both parties, then an “independent investigator” must be appointed. Faso’s position was similar to Democratic statements calling for a special prosecutor. 

But not all House Republicans were ready to weigh in, including many in leadership. 

New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur, a DCCC target in 2018, was visiting schools in his district before hosting a town hall Wednesday night. He said he didn’t know enough about the details of Comey’s firing to offer extensive comment.

“I am going to hold my own and just watch,” he said.

MacArthur said he’s confident that investigations in the House and Senate are sufficient and that there isn’t a need for a special prosecutor right now.

“I want to see what the House, the Senate and the FBI come up with before I start jumping to conclusions,” he said. “I think to do otherwise, frankly, is just looking for political advantage by people.”

Other Republicans went on the offense.

GOP Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana blasted his state’s Democratic senator,  Joe Donnelly, who called for a special prosecutor.

“DC Joe Donnelly is locking arms with extreme liberals in their phony outrage,” said Rokita, who could challenge Donnelly for his Senate seat next year.

Donnelly is one of 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states Trump won last fall. But one of those Democrats said he would not be fazed by any impending attacks like Rokita’s that accuse red-state senators of siding with the extreme left.

“I really don’t care,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said. He said Republicans are equally concerned about the suspicious timing of Comey’s dismissal: “It’s clear everybody thinks that Comey was close to finding really damaging stuff about the Russians.”

Brown said those Republicans aren’t willing to criticize the White House publicly

“They don’t want to speak out against the president of their party. We know that he’s a vindictive man,” he said. “So that’s their fear.”

Democrats see opportunity

Democratic candidates in upcoming special elections to replace GOP House members joined their party’s chorus.

Jon Ossoff in Georgia and Archie Parnell in South Carolina both called for a special prosecutor to lead the Russia investigation. 

Some Democrats said the Comey firing may be another piece of ammunition against Republicans as they look to win back the House.

“From the health care bill, with virtually no public support, to these outright outrageous actions by the president around Russian interference, … I think all of this puts us in a better position in 2018,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., told reporters on a Wednesday press call with liberal groups.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, who was also on the call, agreed with Pocan.

“I think it’s going to have a lot of impact,” the Arizona Democrat said. “If you have a party that is essentially siding with Russians and the obstruction of justice, … they will end up paying the consequences.”

The Nevada Democratic Party saw the Comey news as an opportunity to whack the Silver State’s Republican senator, Dean Heller. The party put out an early statement calling on him to weigh in.

“It sort of reinforces the narrative we’ve painted ever since November 2016 that he’s just a lap dog for Trump,” said party spokesman Stewart Boss. 

Heller alluded to “extraordinary times coupled with extraordinary events” in a statement, adding that “there is nothing more important than getting to the bottom of Russia’s attempt to interfere with our elections.”

The Nevada senator is the only GOP senator up for re-election in a state that Clinton won in November. Inside Elections rates his race Leans Republican.

‘In the rearview mirror’

Though Democrats saw the Comey dismissal as a potential campaign issue, some Republicans said it may not have a political impact.

“I think it will be way, way in the rearview mirror by the time people get started voting,” Sen. Roger Wicker said. The Mississippi Republican chaired the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm during the 2014 and 2016 cycles.

“I don’t think it’s a story that deserves the hysteria that we’re hearing,” Wicker said. “It’s something that the president is well within his ability to do.”

GOP consultant Cam Savage said trying to predict what issues will take hold in 2018 is a “fool's errand.”

“I think [incumbents] should just be really diligent and they should focus on serving their own constituents as best they can,” Savage said. “There’s going to be a ‘story of the day’ every day.”

For one national GOP operative, Democratic confidence that this might help in 2018 was reminiscent of the previous cycle. 

“So far, it seems like Democrats are sticking to the same kind of anti-Trump narrative instead of articulating a platform of their own,” the operative said. “It’s the same message they tried in November, and it didn’t work.”

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