The National Republican Congressional Committee chairman said it was not acceptable that the crowd at President Donald Trump’s rally Wednesday chanted “send her back” about a Muslim congresswoman who was born in Somalia.
But Rep. Tom Emmer declined on Thursday to say whether Trump’s rhetoric could damage GOP efforts to win back the House next year. He also said Republicans were unprepared for health care attacks last year, but next year will be focus on the impact of Democrats’ calls to expand Medicare to cover more people.
Trump escalated his attacks on four first-term congresswomen of color after a racist tweet called on the four American citizens to “go back” to “the crime infested countries from which they came.” During his comments about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia is one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, the crowd chanted, “send her back.”
Emmer, who represents Minnesota in the House, said he did not see the president’s rally, but said of the chant, “There’s no place for that kind of stuff.”
“There’s not a racist bone in this president’s body,” Emmer told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “What he was trying to say is that if you don’t appreciate this country, you don’t have to be here.
“There’s no place for... ‘send her back,’” Emmer added. “I disagree with that completely.”
On Thursday Trump attempted to distance himself from the chant, saying he was “not happy with it.” He said he started speaking quickly after it began, but video of the event showed him backing away from the podium and not speaking for 13 seconds to allow the crowd to continue chanting.
Trump has repeatedly defended his tweet attacking the lawmakers, and a House vote to condemn it as racist this week drew only four Republican votes. The rest of the GOP conference voted to support the president.
Emmer did not directly answer whether Trump’s controversial rhetoric could imperil the GOP effort to win back the House. Depending on the outcome of a special election in North Carolina’s 9th District, Republicans need a net gain of either 19 or 20 seats to win the majority.
Trump on ballot changes 2020 dynamic
Asked if the president being on the ballot was a benefit or a disadvantage, Emmer suggested it was beneficial because people who were angry with Trump could direct their anger directly at him, rather than down-ballot Republicans.
“The last election we heard a lot of people, especially in suburban seats, that were going in, they wanted to vote against the president and all they had was to vote against our guys,” Emmer said. “This time they get a choice.”
Emmer declined to say whether Republicans in those suburban areas should embrace the president or or distance themselves from him. But Emmer said the committee will assist suburban candidates in localizing their races, defining their Democratic opponents, and building their own personal brands.
Although he pushed back against the “send her back” chant, Emmer did slam Omar and the other members of “the squad” — New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley — as socialists. Emmer said they were the de facto leaders of the Democratic conference, which he dubbed, “The New Red Army.”
“This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” Emmer said, noting that dozens of Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors for liberal proposals including the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Emmer’s comments are consistent with the NRCC’s messaging so far this campaign cycle, and he cast the 2020 election as a choice between “socialism and freedom.”
NRCC called Democrats “deranged”
The committee’s messaging tactics, which have included nicknames for various lawmakers, have also sparked some criticism from fellow Republicans. This week the committee labeled more than two dozen House Democrats as “deranged” following a vote backing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for calling Trump’s tweet “racist” on the House floor.
Emmer defended the committee’s strategy as one that defines their Democratic opponents.
“We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not going to back off on that,” Emmer said.
Emmer was asked if some of the committee’s “strong language” could backfire, and he said the committee is focused on defining socialism. The way to win those competitive races, Emmer said, was to recruit and support candidates and help them localize their campaigns.
The campaign chairman did say the party could do a better job of messaging on health care. He sharply criticized Republicans for being ill prepared for Democratic attacks on the issue in 2018.
“Republicans on a campaign level, we never had an answer,” Emmer said.
“We never explained to the American people that there was no Republican that would ever advocate for eliminating coverage of pre-existing conditions,” Emmer added. “I just think we did a very poor job of it.”
Democrats made Republican attempts to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act a central theme of 2018, and plan to continue to make health care a top issue in 2020.
A bill that passed the Republican-dominated House in 2017 could have threatened health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions by allowing states to waive some parts of the 2010 insurance overhaul that limit price variation sin policies sold through federal exchanges. That in turn could have made coverage for people with pre-existing conditions unaffordable.
Emmer said Republicans needed to better explain how they would try to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and also emphasize Democratic proposals such as Medicare for All, which Emmer described as “socialized medicine.”
John Bennett contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.