Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon is in his second term as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He sat down with Roll Call recently to discuss the effect Donald Trump is likely to have on House GOP campaigns, how his members are preparing for their races, and why he wasn’t surprised to hear former Speaker John A. Boehner refer to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh.” The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Are Republican House members nervous? A: As they are in any presidential cycle.
Q: You don’t sense a difference? A: Not really, other than the dynamics are a little different in this process. But the members who are in competitive seats know it, they knew it coming out of the last election. We had predictive analysis [that] said what a traditional presidential turnout model looks like; we recognize this isn’t necessarily traditional.
But if you look at what else is happening, we’ve had a 53 percent uptick in Republican/conservative turnout so far … than ’08. And it’s about 23 percent less on the Democratic side.
So if there’s energy out there, it’s over here on the right.
[Related: What’s a Vulnerable Republican To Do?]
Q: Are there takeaways from Trump’s success? A: A lot of candidates have said a lot of things … and some of what they have said I thought would have been fatal any other cycle. We’ve actually seen them go up. So I’m learning as I go.
Q: Why the change? A: I think people, if you drill down, are sort of moving beyond the politically correct language just to say, ‘I’m willing to forget, forgive, ignore’. … They want change. That’s what’s driving it.
You get outside the Beltway, people are fired up. They’re really fired up.
[Related: Trump’s Dominance Draws on More Than Angry Middle Class]
Q: Is it possible in this day and age, when down-ballot races are increasingly reflections of the national political climate, for House candidates to separate themselves from the presidential race? A: Our members understand and have executed quite successfully, especially in the competitive seats, that they have to be the local congress person. And the advantage that House members have over senators and governors and presidents is we actually get to know the people who sent us here if you’re out there doing the work.
We can’t affect what goes on at 30,000 feet over us. Does it affect us? It might. But we don’t have a lot of ability to affect the presidential and what they say or do and all that. What we do have is an ability to control what we say or do.
Q: Are Trump’s poll numbers cause for concern? A: Go look at the numbers for Hillary Clinton. She started sky high and is now at 56 percent unfavorable. Some of her big victories have been in the southern states. Are you telling me she’s gonna win any of those in the general election? I don’t think so.
Voters are smart enough to be able to differentiate between people in one race and people in another race. You’re not your stepbrother’s keeper.
[Related: Poll Shows Clinton With Large Lead Over Trump]
Q: Were you surprised John Boehner called Ted Cruz “Lucifer in the Flesh”? A: No, only because I’ve heard him say it before, and it didn’t get picked up much.
Q: Fair to say you’re on the defensive this cycle? A: No, I’m on offense. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we had a chance to maintain and grow our majority.
Q: So you think it’s possible to end up with more seats in 2017? A: When you’re at the biggest majority since 1928, I know the challenge we face.
[Related: The 10 Most Vulnerable House Members]
Q: Have you seen an uptick in fundraising as some donors openly fret about the presidential race? A: Most people know we’re the last line of defense. That’s been our argument for several cycles and continues to be, because all tax bills and spending bills have to originate in the House. … So if everything else comes apart, you gotta maintain the House.
Q: Is the majority in play? A: I don’t see it. I don’t see it.
Q: Why is that? A: If you look at competitive races, we’re at 247 seats right now. I would love to see the list that gets you below 218. That’s 29 seats that you have to flip, and I don’t see that.
[Related: The Seats Democrats Must Win to Retake House]
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