To this point, Donald Trump has made his political career on outlandish comments. But Democrats inside Congress are beginning to wonder whether they can end any Republican careers by connecting members to those Trumpian statements, particularly when it comes to one area of GOP advantage: national security.
Voters have traditionally viewed Republicans as the stronger party on defense, and even Democrats acknowledge that Republicans are the ones who want to spend more on the military. House Democrats know they need to make inroads with voters concerned about national security, especially after Democratic leaders recently presented their members with polling showing Republicans ahead by 23 points with those defense-minded voters.
But Trump could dramatically eat into that Republican advantage. Comments about the use of torture (“We have to beat the savages”); murdering the children of ISIS fighters (“Take out their families”); and giving nuclear weapons to new countries (“We're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea”) may give voters pause about which party is best equipped to keep the country safe – in this election and in the future.
And congressional Republicans know it.
“I fear that, if he becomes the nominee and continues to spout nonsense, you know, speak before he thinks, then I think it’s going to be very damaging,” one defense hawk, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), told The Huffington Post last week.
Kinzinger noted that national security was an area that’s dramatically benefitted Republicans. And, he said, with the United States fighting “generational wars,” Trump and his outlandish comments could have real lasting effect.
“If we’re seen as the party that’s not best to handle national security, which so far is what Trump looks like he’s advocating, I think it could be very detrimental,” Kinzinger said.
Some Republicans refrained from speculating too much on Trump’s national security impact, mostly because, they said, they weren’t sure where he really stood on anything.
“I don’t know what Trump’s stance is on national security or foreign policy,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said. “I don’t think anybody else knows either because Trump utters so many nonsensical, false or internally conflicting statements that it is impossible to know what Trump would really do if president.”
Brooks, a fierce conservative and a firm opponent of President Barack Obama, continued that “Trump’s foreign policy vacillations make President Obama look like Mr. Reliable and Mr. Consistent.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said he didn’t know where Trump stood on much because he doesn’t listen to Trump. “He just makes no sense,” Huelskamp said, noting that Trump’s general behavior toward women should also be cause for concern among Republicans.
“My wife, for one, is really offended by that,” Huelskamp said.
Rep. Justin Amash, one of the leading libertarian voices in Congress, mostly shrugged off Trump’s possible damage to the Republican brand on national security. The Michigan Republican said Trump was “right about some things and wrong about a lot of other things.”
But Amash didn’t think Trump was really tied to the GOP brand. “A lot of the Republican voters out there who support him are doing that precisely because he’s not very Republican,” Amash said.
And other House Republicans thought Trump was immaterial to their actions on defense.
“Republicans in Congress will remain strong on national defense, regardless of who the nominee is, of that person’s position,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said.
But Republicans shouldn’t be so sure they can avoid the Trump brand.
The larger danger and harm is that Republicans are no longer seen as the party of national security. They’re seen as a party run by a madman. John Lapp, Democratic strategist
John Lapp, a Democratic strategist and ad maker, told HuffPost that Republicans will have trouble separating themselves from Trump, particularly if he is the GOP nominee.
"Eventually, they’re all going to be part of the same party,” he said.
Lapp reported that he’s seen plenty of polling to suggest voters believe Trump would be dangerous for the country, and he suggested that Democrats could paint a Republican Party led by Trump as reckless and erratic.
"The larger danger and harm is that Republicans are no longer seen as the party of national security,” Lapp said. “They’re seen as a party run by a madman."
For Rep. Scott Peters (Calif.), who represents one of the most Republican-heavy districts held by a Democrat, it’s about connecting his eventual Republican opponent -- whoever emerges from a crowded GOP primary -- to Trump.
“To the extent I’m running against ... a slate headed by Mr. Trump that’s irresponsible, dangerous – I’ll call it out,” Peters said.
Peters’ San Diego district is tailor-made for an argument against Trump.
California voters are, generally, more socially liberal and more hawkish on defense. And while Trump likes to consider himself a hawk, Peters thinks his voters, many of whom have military experience, will see Trump’s comments as reckless and uninformed.
“That kind of stuff is a bad impression to give to the world,” Peters said of Trump’s comments on national security, “and I think San Diego understands that.”
For Democrat Bryan Caforio, who is running in California to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Knight, the game plan is simply to connect his Republican opponent to Trump at every turn.
On Monday, Caforio laid out all the issues where Trump and Knight are similar, from abortion to deportation to threatening to “drop” a protestor who touched him.
“There isn’t much daylight between Steve Knight and Donald Trump,” Caforio said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee clearly sees an opening with Trump.
Some recent DCCC polling conducted in 55 swing districts revealed that voters in those districts have national security concerns about someone like Trump – or even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who’s said he wants to carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” Cruz said in December.
In a choice between a leader who is “too reckless” or “too passive,” 49 percent said the bigger concern was a leader who was too reckless, compared to the 39 percent who said a passive leader was a bigger concern.
And, in this same poll, 59 percent of likely voters in key congressional districts said they have "fairly major" or "very major" doubts about GOP House candidates connected to the national security views of Trump or Cruz.
That could be a real problem for Republicans.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist