- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2015

Donald Trump has not only shaken up the GOP’s presidential contest, he was also a dominant theme for congressional Republicans back home in their states and districts this summer, where many of the lawmakers took pains to show respect for him.

Still, the Trump campaign has yet to report any congressional endorsements — not that it even seems to be seeking them — and some pundits are already warning that Mr. Trump at the top of the GOP ticket will be deadly to the prospects of some of the down-ticket candidates.

Jon Ralston, a Nevada political columnist, said Mr. Trump’s campaign is “threatening” the chances of Rep. Joseph J. Heck, Republicans’ best hope to capture that state’s open Senate seat next year. Democrats eagerly tout other calculations that Mr. Trump could jeopardize Republican efforts to capture a Senate seat in Colorado and hold onto one in Florida.

But it was hard to deny the billionaire businessman’s effect on the conversation.

“He’s saying the things that a majority of Americans have been thinking and wish somebody was saying,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, told the Cherokee Rose Republican Women’s August meeting, according to The Gilmer Mirror.

As Mr. Gohmert and his fellow Republicans fanned out across the country this summer, Mr. Trump was one of the hottest topics, with constituents demanding to know how their elected representatives in Washington viewed the man who has shaken the GOP to its core, exposed deep rifts over immigration and given voice to voters disenchanted with what they see as an establishment too willing to engage in politics as usual in Washington.

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“When I walk down the street and go to a bagel shop, diner, ball game, the first question people ask me is, ‘What do you think of Donald Trump? He’s the only guy that’s saying what we believe,’” Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who had flirted with his own presidential bid, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “So he’s definitely tapped into a nerve throughout, so I’m not surprised to see the numbers now. Did I predict this? Not at all.”

Opinions on Mr. Trump are seriously divided among Republican officeholders meeting with constituents.

Rep. Roger Williams, Texas Republican, told a town hall he’s “a serious candidate” who’s raising important issues, according to the Burleson Star.

But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican, was “critical” of Mr. Trump, according to The Hutchinson News. “This is not a reality show. This is the real thing,” he said, according to the paper.

And Rep. Blake Farenthold, another Texas Republican, was wondering whether Mr. Trump’s bold tongue would land the GOP in trouble.

“As a Republican, I’m very much afraid he’s going to put his foot in his mouth and choke on it,” the congressman told a town hall meeting, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Regardless of how they feel, however, Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep vein within the GOP that appreciates his candor — and particularly on immigration.

Mr. Trump has proposed building more fencing on the southwest border, tripling the number of interior agents to boost deportations and to go after businesses that cheat the law, ending birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants and requiring all illegal immigrants to go home before applying to come back under color of law.

Those stances have now become litmus tests voters are looking at when vetting their own members of Congress.

Asked about the Trump immigration plan, Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, skirted around comparisons with the presidential candidate and distanced himself from mass deportations, his home-state Henderson Times-News reported.

“I don’t think anybody here thinks that’s pragmatic, but here’s the problem: By not addressing the problem, for years and years it creates a situation where we start to look at desperate things,” Mr. Meadows said. “It’s time that we address this as Congress.”

Immigration has not only stymied Capitol Hill, but has turned into a powerful political issue on the campaign trail. And most pundits appear convinced it cuts against Republicans in places such as Nevada and Colorado.

Mr. Ralston said Mr. Trump could scare Hispanic voters away from other Republicans and into Democrats’ hands, calling the presidential candidate “an anchor on GOP candidates such as Heck” in the Nevada U.S. Senate race.

Mr. Heck’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump’s campaign declined to comment about his effect on other races.

One sign of how wary other officeholders are of Mr. Trump is his lack of endorsements by anyone in Congress.

While the rest of the field of experienced politicians are calling in chits to claim endorsements — led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with about two dozen — Mr. Trump doesn’t have any public endorsements from Capitol Hill.

A campaign spokeswoman said there was “nothing to share at this time.”

Kevin Sheridan, a Republican strategist and founder of the Sheridan Media Group, said GOP candidates are looking at Mr. Trump and what he says about the political playing field this year.

“Like everyone else, candidates at all levels are still trying to figure out what Trump’s candidacy means,” he said. “Overall, yes, he could very well impact down-ballot candidates if they don’t think carefully about how to talk about him. If you’re in a tough race, you’re in a swing district, and some of his statements would not be helpful.”

Still, he said it’s too early to begin locking in campaign strategies based on speculation about the top of the ticket, “so most candidates will be keeping their heads down and running the kind of race they want to run.”

For his part, Mr. Trump continues building support and leads in the latest polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states to vote in the presidential primary.

A new Marist/NBC poll released over the weekend showed Mr. Trump with a 7 percentage-point lead over retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in Iowa. The same poll has Mr. Trump garnering 28 percent of the vote in New Hampshire — more than twice that of second-place Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Mr. Trump, along with upset-minded Sen. Bernard Sanders, who is surging in the Democratic primary, “have struck a chord with voters,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Hispanic voters don’t play a major role in GOP politics in either state, and Marist didn’t release racial or ethnic demographic breakdowns for either state, so it’s not possible to say how Mr. Trump rates with Hispanics there.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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