On Monday night, as several GOP Senate candidates jumped in to blast FBI and federal justice officials, Republican candidates in the swing states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina held off. The next morning, as pressure mounted from right-wing activists, famed physician Mehmet Oz, a Pennsylvania Senate candidate, took to Twitter with a message that didn’t mention Trump by name, but simply lamented the divisions in the country and asserted that the Americans had “perfect right” to demand answers about the search and seizure of documents.
Rep. Ted Budd, who is seeking a Senate seat in North Carolina, also tweeted from his official congressional account after his office was bombarded with calls demanding his response. His statement said Americans deserved a “full explanation” of what happened.
These calls for transparency from Oz and Budd differ markedly from the fiercer rebukes of other Republicans who have painted America as a lawless banana republic — and reflect that some GOP candidates in battleground states are showing caution in discussing a Trump investigation that could sway critical independent and suburban voters.
“The reintroduction of his radioactive persona and politics comes at a very inopportune time for Republicans,” said Michael Brodkorb, former Minnesota GOP vice chairman. “Republicans want this election cycle to be about Joe Biden, inflation, jobs and the economy, and right now it’s increasingly about Donald Trump. And just like a rock in the shoe that won’t go away, it’s back, and it’s going to complicate an election cycle that tended to be very straightforward for Republicans.
The caution in some corners of the GOP also reflects how close the fight is for control of the Senate. After initially refusing to comment on Mar-a-Lago’s search at a press conference – which drew criticism from pro-Trump activists – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell , also decided to take a cautious stance in calling for transparency, issuing a statement saying “The country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to Monday’s events.”
Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who served as an adviser to McConnell, said this approach allows Republicans to nod to the party base without turning off more moderate voters.
“If you’re a candidate who doesn’t want to engage in conspiracy theories, but you don’t want to ignore it either, this is a really good place to land saying, ‘We need transparency here. ‘” Jennings said. . “Donald Trump – whether you like him or not – this is not a trivial situation. Because half the American people are going to believe that something politically motivated is afoot.
Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd, said the campaign decided to wait before releasing a statement because they assumed there would be some sort of explanation from the Justice Department.
“We had no political calculation,” Felts said of the campaign’s decision not to immediately jump on the issue on Monday.
But as Budd’s congressional office began to come under fire with phone calls from angry voters over a perceived overreach from the Biden administration, his official House social media accounts — but not those associated to his Senate campaign — issued a statement just before noon on Tuesday. Calling the research “unprecedented,” Budd, who has touted his support for law enforcement, refrained from suggesting the FBI’s activity was illegitimate.
“Shame on us to think Joe Biden wouldn’t do partisan politics with the FBI,” Felts said in a statement to POLITICO, explaining the campaign’s decision.
The Oz campaign declined to elaborate on its statement.
In Colorado and Washington, two blue states that Senate Republicans are considering as potential candidates this year, GOP candidates have not publicly mentioned FBI activity involving Trump.
Despite the issue’s downsides for some candidates, many Republican strategists also see an upside: It’s a fundraising opportunity for the GOP, especially among smaller donors. Jennings guessed that “every fundraising consultant in America, when this happened, called their client and said, ‘Go right now.'”
And some did, including Oz. In stark contrast to his Twitter remarks, a fundraising email from Oz sent on Tuesday afternoon called for a fight back “against THIS HARMFUL CORRUPTION”.
Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, said another benefit is that the research could inspire Republican voters to go to the polls: “The FBI, I don’t call them political in any way, but what they do end up having political ramifications. And I think what happened with Mar-a-Lago, after seeing the reaction of a lot of conservatives, is that it will probably motivate the conservatives to have even more d aversion to administration.
Several Republican Senate candidates in battleground states have taken an approach to Mar-a-Lago research aimed more directly at those voters.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Senate candidates Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Herschel Walker of Georgia have each lambasted the “militarization” or “militarization” of federal agencies under Biden. And in Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters tried to contrast FBI action against Trump with alleged law enforcement inaction against violent crimes affecting ordinary citizens.
“When street crimes go unsolved but opposition leaders are hunted down by the feds, you live in a third world country,” Masters tweeted late Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he doubled down, asking why his opponent, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, hadn’t commented on the “politicization of the DOJ.”
Johnson not only released a raunchy statement on social media, he took part in a series of interviews in which he alluded to nefarious FBI activities, including suggesting on the radio that the agency could have “collected evidence that would be embarrassing to the FBI.”
These comments from Republicans matched the sentiment of Florida Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the Republican National Senate Committee, who said “every Republican needs to demand accountability.” Scott reiterated his sentiments on television, even as other members of the Senate GOP leadership — members more closely aligned with McConnell — took a more measured approach.
Kelly isn’t the only Democratic Senate candidate in a swing state who has remained tight-lipped about finding Mar-a-Lago — in fact, all of the major battlegrounds have been. Even as Liberal activists and commentators gloated, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin, both running for the Senate, avoided mentioning the FBI action against Trump. Democratic incumbents in other competitive races were also muted, opting instead to tweet about political issues or troll opponents about unrelated issues.
Although many Democrats are counting the days until Trump announces a 2024 presidential bid in the belief that it would help them midterm, some party strategists believe nationalizing Senate races could backfire. . Fetterman, who has blasted bad trade deals and run TV ads on Fox News, is making a play for rural voters and Trump supporters. Barnes highlighted his middle-class roots in an effort to appeal to a broad electorate.
A focus group of swing voters in Pennsylvania held Wednesday night, which was viewed exclusively by POLITICO, highlighted the complicated political dynamics of the moment. All voters in the focus group hosted by the Republican Accountability Project had backed Biden or a third-party candidate in 2020 after voting for Trump four years earlier. About half expressed suspicion of the FBI’s actions and believed it would rally Trump’s base.
“They just want to find a reason to prevent [Trump] show up,” said a woman who planned to vote for Fetterman.
Another woman supporting Fetterman said “I don’t know enough” when asked if the research was a political stunt.
A man who was a soft Oz fan and leaned towards supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, says ‘there are subpoenas, there are other ways to get’ Trump documents . “A raid – if that’s what it’s about, it’s overkill.”
David Siders contributed to this report.