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House candidates given convention airtime have common feature: Trump loyalty

In competitive districts, only a few given prime-time spots

Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and the GOP nominee in Utah's 4th District, speaks at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.
Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and the GOP nominee in Utah's 4th District, speaks at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday. (Courtesy the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention/Getty Images)

GOP campaign officials say they have assembled a slate of candidates who can win back the House in 2020, but just two of them secured prime time speaking slots during the Republican National Convention this week. 

And in a year in which Republicans are touting a historically high number of female recruits — 90 women so far have made it onto the ballot in November, up from the record of 53 in 2004 — every candidate in a competitive House race who has spoken during the convention has been a man. 

It’s not unusual for candidates in competitive races to shun their party’s convention. But a typical year will see more than a dozen candidates on stage, or heading breakout sessions, with special attention given to those considered to be rising stars. This year, the restrictions of the virtual format forced both parties to make tough decisions about whom to put at the podium.

Rather than provide a boost to candidates who could use a breakout moment or attention from donors, the Republican convention highlighted candidates who passed a different test: All are staunch allies of the president.

Campaign trail to convention ‘stage’ 

Former NFL player and Fox News personality Burgess Owens, who addressed the convention Wednesday night, was one of two candidates with a prime-time spot running in a district Republicans are targeting in the fall. Owens is taking on Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, who represents a Utah district President Donald Trump carried by 7 percentage points in 2016. 

Owens is also one of three Black House candidates on the ballot in a competitive or open Solid Republican districts in November. He was one of several Black Republicans — including Kimberly Klacik, who is running in Maryland’s deep blue 7th District — to use prime speaking slots to blunt criticism that the GOP, under Trump, is racist.

Wednesday’s program also featured three Republicans — Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Lee Zeldin of New York, and North Carolina nominee Madison Cawthorn — who are running in districts Trump carried by solid margins but that Democrats have included in their ever-expanding list of targets. 

Crenshaw has earned the president’s praise for his forceful defense of Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Zeldin was one of Trump’s most forceful defenders during the House impeachment inquiry. 

And Cawthorn, who is vying for an open North Carolina seat Trump carried by 29 points in 2016, has made a point of emphasizing his pro-Trump credentials since defeating a Trump-endorsed candidate in a June primary. The 25-year-old made an appeal to millennial voters, a demographic the Trump campaign has struggled to excite. 

Former Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said House and Senate candidates within the party are cozying up to the president — or keeping him at a distance — depending on what they think will help their chances in November.

“The political calculation comes down to: Does the president help me, doesn’t he help me?” Shuster said during a Zoom call Thursday hosted by the Association of Former Members of Congress. 

Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who switched parties to become a Republican in protest of the Democrats’ pursuit of impeachment, is slated to speak Thursday night. Van Drew is defending a district Trump won.

The other House challenger taking on a targeted Democrat who spoke at the convention this week was Sean Parnell, who was a frequent guest on Fox News before launching his campaign against Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb.

Lamb was one of just three vulnerable House Democrats featured in prime time during last week’s Democratic convention. But nearly a dozen targeted Democrats participated in virtual watch parties organized by Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign, giving them plenty of opportunities for off-the-cuff appearances.

A larger and more diverse pool of candidates was featured by the Republican National Convention in pre-recorded videos aired before the main events started at 8:30 p.m. Eastern — and before networks started broadcasting the program. 

But with little advertising surrounding those appearances, it is unclear who the targeted audience was meant to be. Of the 25 House lawmakers and candidates featured in the pre-convention program, eight are running in races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as competitive. Those featured in the brief “candidate spotlights” in the pre-convention programming stressed their support for Trump. 

The candidates and targeted lawmakers featured in prime time Wednesday all spoke of overcoming adversity, keeping within that night’s theme of “Land of Heroes.” 

Crenshaw, who lost an eye while serving as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan, spoke of the friend and “teammate” who shielded him from an explosion but later died in combat. 

Zeldin recounted the medical complications that beset his premature twins during the first weeks of their lives. Cawthorn talked about the car accident that left him partially paralyzed. 

And Owens talked about his great-great-grandfather’s rise from slavery to entrepreneurship, and his own experience overcoming early missteps to join the corporate world after a successful NFL career. 

Owens made the most direct appeal to those watching the convention to help take back the House.

“My fellow Americans, specifically my Democrat and independent friends, it is time for us to unite and to put aside partisan barriers,” Owens said. “Help us win back the House, keep the Senate and give our president four more years.”

Recent polls have shown Owens in a tight race with McAdams, who has more than a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage. Inside Elections rates the race Tilt Democratic.

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Democrats blast back

The four candidates varied in their warnings about a “radical left” and their praise of Trump. But Democrats seized on their convention appearances to highlight their proximity to the president, raise questions about their credibility and connect them to extremist groups on the right. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put out an email blast Wednesday afternoon drawing attention to Owens’ May appearance on an internet show run by followers of the fringe, right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon. Democrats also seized on reports this week that Owens had plagiarized extensive passages of his book and that he had helped raise money for the “Build the Wall” charity at the center of fraud charges against former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. 

Crenshaw, who has been critical of Trump’s foreign policy decisions, didn’t mention Trump by name in his nearly four-minute speech. Trump carried the 2nd District in the Houston suburbs by 9 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the 2nd District race Likely Republican.

Instead, Crenshaw said generally, “We can decide right now that American greatness will not be rejected nor squandered.” 

That didn’t stop Crenshaw’s opponent, attorney Sima Ladjevardian, from criticizing him. She put out a statement on Wednesday saying Crenshaw “left Houston behind to advance his own political career, and now President Trump is rewarding him for his loyalty to the party instead of the people.”

Zeldin appealed directly for a second term for Trump, saying in his speech recorded at a VFW hall, “For our nation to emerge even stronger, more prosperous and freer and more secure than ever, to make our country greater than ever before, we must reelect President Trump.”

Trump carried Zeldin’s 1st District on Long Island by 12 points in 2016, but Zeldin won reelection in 2018 by just four points. The same day Zeldin was set to address the convention, the DCCC added his opponent, chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, to its “Red to Blue” program for strong challengers. Inside Elections also rates the 1st District race Likely Republican

On Wednesday, the DCCC also added Cawthorn, who spoke in some of the starkest terms about the threat posed by the “radical left,” to its target list. 

“Today political forces want to usher in the digital dark ages — a time of information without wisdom and tribalism without truth,” Cawthorn said. “National leaders on the left have normalized emotion-based voting and radicalized identity politics that rejects Martin Luther King’s dream.”

But his appearance also drew attention to his usage of white-supremacist symbols, and questions about his claim that an auto accident prevented him from attending the U.S. Naval Academy

The 25-year-old faces Democrat Moe Davis, 62, who has narrowed a race that Inside Elections rates as Solid Republican.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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