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News / Politics

As Trump heads to Southern California, vulnerable House Republicans navigate his guilty verdict

Professor: 'It’s a very difficult line to walk'

By Kaitlyn Schallhorn and Hanna Kang, The Orange County Register
Published: June 2, 2024, 5:44pm

Before the historic guilty verdict in former President Donald Trump’s felony case, vulnerable House Republicans had a tightrope to walk.

Starting with his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has been a polarizing figure in American politics. Candidates in Southern California’s swing districts these past election cycles — like Rep. Michelle Steel in California’s 45th, where voters solidly picked President Joe Biden over Trump in 2020 while electing to send Steel back to Congress — have had to weigh aligning themselves with a president who could turn away independent voters or losing out on support from a Republican base that venerates Trump.

And with Trump set to touch down in Southern California this week to bolster his campaign coffers, that balancing act just got a bit trickier. His visit comes on the heels of his conviction on 34 felony counts related to falsifying business documents to influence the 2016 presidential election illegally.

While many Republicans defended Trump following the verdict — echoing Trump’s own criticism of the judge and allegations that the trial was “rigged” — there’s been silence from several of those more vulnerable House Republican incumbents and candidates in deep-blue California. And it’s unclear which, if any, Republican candidates will pursue the chance to chat and get their picture with Trump when he’s in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.

Steel and Rep. Young Kim — whose district spans Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties — did not respond to requests for comment about the verdict. Their social media accounts have also been void of any supportive posts.

A spokesperson for Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, also did not respond to requests for comment. His social media accounts of late, too, did not reference the trial.

“It’s a very difficult line to walk. Trump and his campaign have made it clear for some time now that their strategy is to attack the judge and the judicial system,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political messaging at the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley.

“That’s a very savvy way of motivating his base, but it’s not as clear whether that helps with swing voters,” Schnur added. “So Republicans in safe districts can follow Trump’s lead without any hesitation, but those running in competitive races might not have that luxury.”

Still, a few Republicans have voiced support for Trump since the verdict, including Scott Baugh, who is running in the 47th congressional district in Orange County. The open seat is considered to “lean Democrat” by the Cook Political Report election analyst site.

“The verdict should surprise no one,” Baugh said. “A politically motivated prosecutor and a hostile judge set the trial up for so many prejudicial errors. President Trump will have his opportunity to appeal, and I am confident that a fair hearing will expose and resolve these issues.

“Political prosecutions are on the rise,” he said.

And Rep. Ken Calvert — who represents California’s 41st District in Riverside County, considered a “Republican toss-up” by the Cook Political Report — expressed his concern with the verdict on social media without directly invoking the former president’s name.

“Americans who believe that justice should be blind to politics and administered equally should be concerned with today’s outcome,” Calvert said. “It’s alarming that our criminal justice system continues to be taken advantage of by partisan prosecutors who want to use the power of their office to influence our democratic elections.”

While voters do care about “law and order” or “the rule of law,” Schnur said, it’s only one of many issues that may be at the top of their minds this election season.

Even before the trial, Republicans in swing districts homed in on issues like immigration and inflation, Schnur said.

And those are the issues that are more likely to resonate with swing voters, said Jon Fleischman, the former executive director of the California Republican Party.

“At the end of the day, swing voters are going to care about their gas prices, their grocery prices and fentanyl coming over the border,” Fleischman said. “I think this is the stuff (Trump’s guilty verdict) that all the partisan people on either side obsess over, and I don’t think swing voters are focused on it.”

Case in point: While neither Kim nor Steel has posted about Trump on social media, both used their respective X, formerly Twitter, accounts on Friday to discuss the southern border.

Still, while focusing on so-called kitchen table issues may be “just as strong a formula for Republicans in competitive races today as it was last week,” Schnur said, “it’s going to be a greater challenge for them to get that message heard now.”

“Already, you’ve seen many Republicans talking about how there are other topics that are going to be more important to the voters than the trial,” he continued. “That means they don’t want to talk about the trial.”

Following the money

While Republicans may not want to talk about Trump’s conviction now, there’s no doubt they see a potential positive in it: the influx of cash.

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Trump’s campaign says it has raised nearly $53 million in online donations since the verdict. The news release says more than one-third of the donors are “new to the campaign” but offered few other details.

But for Republicans in competitive House races, it’s the National Republican Congressional Committee’s reported haul of more than $300,000 Thursday that may interest them more. (As Punchbowl News reported, that exceeds the congressional campaign arm’s previous one-day record by about $125,000.)

“Even over the course of the trial, there already was a marked increase in Trump’s fundraising,” Schnur said. “That’s likely to continue and even intensify.”

Trump is scheduled to head to Southern California this week for two in-person fundraisers — the first in Beverly Hills on Friday, and the next in Newport Beach the following day at an event hosted by virtual reality entrepreneur Palmer Luckey, who has put on private fundraisers for the former president in past election cycles as well.

But don’t expect to see any of those Republican congressional candidates in competitive Southern California races flocking to the fundraisers.

“This is just for our supporters and donors, and we will probably come back in the fall to help congressional campaigns,” said Tony Strickland, a Huntington Beach councilmember and spokesperson for the Trump campaign in Orange County.

The goal is to help the former president, Strickland said, and “attendees are dominated by people who are writing the checks.”

Lance Trover, a spokesperson for Steel, declined to answer questions about whether she would attend a fundraiser for the person leading her party or if she has any plans to campaign with him ahead of November.

Notably, Steel did tell Punchbowl ahead of the verdict that what goes on at the top of the ticket “doesn’t really matter.”

In the general election, Steel faces Democrat Derek Tran, an attorney who has spoken about being the son of Vietnamese refugees on the campaign trail.

Kim, too, won’t be attending the fundraisers, a spokesperson said, and will instead be at events in her district over the weekend.

Kim’s district also went for Biden in 2020, when voters elected to send her back to Washington, D.C., but her race is considered to be “likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report. Steel’s, on the other hand, is labeled “lean Republican,” meaning it’s projected to be more competitive.