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Top One Magazine

How the Trump FBI search puts swing-state Republicans in a bind

As news broke that the FBI had searched Donald Trump’s Florida home, MAGA loyalists and even some of the former president’s potential 2024 rivals rushed to a full-throated defense of the former president.

But not every Republican joined the chorus.

While the FBI search has given a jolt of energy to the conservative base, the issue is proving to be more complicated in pivotal battleground races that could determine control of the chamber — places where Republicans had been hoping to keep the focus on Democrats’ economic woes and off of Trump.

On Monday night, while several Senate GOP nominees jumped to blast the 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 vocal right-wing activists, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, took to Twitter with a message that did not mention Trump by name but merely lamented the country’s divisions and asserted that Americans had “every right” to demand answers about the search and seizure of documents.

Rep. Ted Budd, who is seeking a Senate seat in North Carolina, likewise eventually tweeted from his official Congress account after his office was bombarded with calls asking about his response. His statement said Americans deserved a “full explanation” of what happened.

Those calls for transparency from Oz and Budd differ markedly from the more fiery rebukes from other Republicans who painted America as a lawless banana republic — and reflect that some GOP candidates in battleground states are erring on the side of caution in discussing a Trump investigation that could influence critical independent and suburban voters.

“The reintroducing of his radioactive persona and politics is coming at a very inopportune time for Republicans,” said Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota GOP. “Republicans want this election cycle to be about Joe Biden, inflation, jobs and the economy, and right now, it’s becoming more about Donald Trump. And just like a rock in the shoe that won’t go away, he’s back again, and it’s going to complicate an election cycle that was trending to be a very uncomplicated one for Republicans.”

The caution in some corners in the GOP also reflects just how tight the contest is for control of the Senate. After initially declining to weigh in on the Mar-a-Lago search at a press conference — which prompted criticism from pro-Trump activists — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also decided to take a cautious tack of calling for transparency, issuing a statement arguing that “the country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to the events of Monday.”

Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who has served as an adviser to McConnell, said that approach enables 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 also don’t want to ignore it, it’s a pretty good place to land by saying, ‘We need some transparency here,’” Jennings said. “Donald Trump — like him or not — this is not a run-of-the-mill situation. Because half the American people are going to believe something politically motivated is afoot.”

Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd, said the campaign decided to wait on issuing a statement because they assumed there would be some type of explanation from the Department of Justice.

“We didn’t have a political calculus,” Felts said of the campaign’s decision not to immediately jump on the issue Monday.

But as Budd’s congressional office began getting slammed with phone calls from constituents angry about a perceived overreach by the Biden administration, his official House social media accounts — though not ones associated with his Senate campaign — posted a statement just before noon Tuesday. Calling the search “unprecedented,” Budd, who has touted his support from law enforcement, stopped short of suggesting the FBI activity was illegitimate.

“Shame on us for thinking Joe Biden wouldn’t play partisan politics with the FBI,” Felts said in a statement to POLITICO, explaining the campaign’s decision.

Oz’s campaign declined to elaborate on his statement.

In Colorado and Washington, two blue states Senate Republicans are eyeing this year as potential pickups, the GOP nominees haven’t publicly mentioned the FBI activity involving Trump.

Despite the downsides of the issue for some candidates, many Republican strategists also see an upside: It’s a fundraising opportunity for the GOP, especially among small-dollar donors. Jennings guessed that “every fundraising consultant in America, when this happened, called their client and said, ‘Hop on this immediately.’”

And some did, including Oz. In stark contrast to his remarks on Twitter, a fundraising email from Oz sent Tuesday afternoon called for fighting back “against THIS NEFARIOUS CORRUPTION.”

Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, said another benefit is that the search could supercharge Republican voters to go to the polls: “The FBI, I’m not calling them political by any means, but what they do ends up having political ramifications. And I think what happened with Mar-a-Lago, after seeing the reaction of a lot of conservatives, is it will probably motivate conservatives to have even more dislike for the administration.”

Several Republican Senate nominees in battleground states took an approach to the Mar-a-Lago search more directly aimed at those voters.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Senate candidates Adam Laxalt of Nevada and Herschel Walker of Georgia each lambasted the “weaponization” or “weaponizing” of federal agencies under Biden. And in Arizona, Republican Senate nominee Blake Masters tried to contrast the FBI action against Trump with alleged inaction by law enforcement against violent crime affecting ordinary citizens.

“When street crimes go unsolved but opposition leaders are hounded by federal police, you’re living in a third world country,” Masters tweeted Monday night. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he doubled down, asking why his opponent, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, had not remarked on the “politicization of the DOJ.”

Johnson not only put out a scorching statement on social media, he participated in a series of interviews in which he hinted at nefarious activity by the FBI, including suggesting on the radio that the agency might have been “recovering evidence that would be embarrassing to the FBI.”

Those Republicans’ comments matched the sentiment of Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who declared that “every Republican must demand accountability.” Scott reiterated his feelings on television, even as other members of 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 the Mar-a-Lago search — in fact, all in the top battlegrounds have been. Even as liberal activists and commentators have gloated, Lt. Govs. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin, both of whom are vying for the Senate, steered clear of mentioning the FBI action against Trump. Democratic incumbents in other competitive races were also mum, choosing instead to tweet about policy matters or troll their opponents on unrelated issues.

Though many Democrats are counting down the days until Trump announces a 2024 presidential bid under the belief that it would help them in midterms, some party strategists believe nationalizing Senate races could backfire. Fetterman, who has lambasted bad trade deals and run TV ads on Fox News, is making a play for rural voters and Trump supporters. Barnes has highlighted his middle-class roots in an effort to appeal to a broad electorate.

A focus group of swing voters in Pennsylvania held on Wednesday evening, which was viewed exclusively by POLITICO, highlighted the complicated political dynamics of the moment. All of the voters in the focus group held by the Republican Accountability Project had supported Biden or a third-party candidate in 2020 after casting a ballot 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] to run,” said one woman who was planning to vote for Fetterman.

Another woman supporting Fetterman said “I don’t know enough about it” when asked whether the search was a political stunt.

A man who was a soft Oz supporter, and leaning toward backing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, said “there’s subpoenas, there’s other ways to get” Trump’s documents. “A raid — if that’s what it’s about, it’s over the top.”

David Siders contributed to this report.

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