If you want to know how Republicans will campaign in the 2018 midterm elections, you don’t have to wait. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave an early preview Monday night at a rally for Karen Handel, the Republican candidate in the runoff for Georgia’s 6th District seat.
If you’re just tuning in to the race, Handel is a former Georgia secretary of state and would be the first Republican woman elected to Congress from the Peach State. She is running against Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat and former Hill staffer who nearly won the seat outright last month, when he received 48 percent of the vote. The suburban district is wealthy, highly educated, and newly politically turbulent. The longtime GOP stronghold went for President Donald Trump by just 1 percent in November.
Because the result here will be spun as a proxy for 2018, not to mention an early referendum on Trump, GOP leaders are pouring time, money and resources into the district. But in the first serious contest of the Trump era, they are running a race almost as if President Trump does not exist — including Monday night’s visit from Speaker Ryan.
The rally was short, sweet, and like a time capsule that could have been buried in 1994, 2004 or 2014. By Ryan and Handel’s telling, Republicans have principles, lots of principles. They are also conservative, very conservative. The details were few, the platitudes were many. (“Talk is cheap,” “The stakes are high.”) And if anything was going wrong, it was all Nancy Pelosi’s fault, a go-to Republican concept for the last 10 years. (“The Left and Nancy Pelosi are trying to stymie the people of this district,” Ryan warned.)
If there was a Republican in the White House on Monday night, it was not at all clear from either Ryan or Handel’s brief remarks, each of which clocked in at under five minutes. If there was a president at all, that would have been news to the rally, too. Although Pelosi’s name was invoked four times at various levels of ridicule and blame, neither the speaker, Handel, nor NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers mentioned President Trump’s name even once. President who? It seemed like Republicans had never even met the guy.
It’s not at all complicated to understand why Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail seem to wish President Trump would just fade into the wallpaper. Trump has been a one-man wrecking ball in the daily news cycles for the past 125 days. He canned the FBI director at the very moment the FBI was investigating his campaign. He appears to have shared highly classified information with the Russian government. He rails against leaks and still picks up the phone and calls reporters himself. His staff is spinning out of control. He won’t stop tweeting.
And yet, Trump has a higher approval rating in the 6th District than Handel or Ryan. National polls also routinely show the president — damaged as he may already be — is more popular than the Republican Congress.
And this is where it gets really complicated for Republicans, who have spent their entire careers as the party of national security, family values, and conservative principles, but now have a president who seems to challenge at least one of those principles every day.
This isn’t to say that Ryan needs to comment every time the president says or does something controversial. It is not prudent, or even advisable, for Republicans to respond or opine on every piece of breaking news or everything Trump says on his Twitter feed, especially when reporting is based on anonymous sources and involves classified material that even Congress has not even been read in on.
But the chaos that Trump is spinning at the White House is forcing the Republican Party into the background. The more they try to ignore Trump and act like there’s nothing to see here, the more they are becoming the silent players in this drama. Nothing could do more damage to Republicans’ brand as the party of principles and values than their willingness to stand by and say nothing if those values are being challenged.
Republicans can recruit great candidates, draft a million talking points, and raise all the money they want. But they can’t blame Nancy Pelosi for forcing them to stand by as a president decapitates the FBI, glad-hands the Russians, and declassifies information on the fly.
There is no safe silence for Republicans anymore. Voters want authenticity and honesty. Americans want to know they’re safe, and that someone, somewhere, is going to stop the crazy train if it ever looks like it’s really going off the rails. Republican leaders can give Americans that assurance, but they haven’t so far.