Most California Republicans in competitive congressional races are silent on Trump’s conviction

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Most of the Republican candidates for Congress in California’s most competitive districts reacted to the news of former President Trump’s historic criminal conviction with radio silence.

A New York jury deliberated for 9½ hours over two days before convicting Trump of 34 counts of falsifying business records in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through hush money payments to a porn actor who said the two had sex.

After the verdict, California’s Republican leaders quickly cast doubt on the verdict’s legitimacy and argued it would boost Trump’s chances of reelection in November.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said that Trump’s “only ‘crime’ is running against Joe Biden in 2024.”

Jessica Millan Patterson, the chair of the California Republican Party, said the prosecution was “a politically motivated case brought by a far-left district attorney” and that the guilty verdict “never should have happened.”

San Diego-area Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall) called the verdict and the trial “a disgrace.”

Democrats, by contrast, praised the verdict as proof of the American legal system functioning as it should. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who is running for Senate, said that “the rule of law prevailed” despite Trump’s efforts to “distract, delay and deny.”

In California’s most hotly contested congressional races, though, few wanted to publicly tangle with the question of Trump’s conviction.

Representatives for Reps. Young Kim (R-Anaheim Hills), Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach), Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita), David Valadao (R-Hanford) and John Duarte (R-Modesto) did not return requests for comment. Nor did representatives for Matt Gunderson, who is challenging Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) in coastal Orange and San Diego counties, or Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln, who is running against Rep. Josh Harder (D-Tracy) in the Central Valley.

A representative for Republican Steve Garvey, who is running for Senate against Schiff, said he had no comment on the verdict.

One exception was Scott Baugh, who is running to flip the coastal Orange County seat held by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine). Baugh, the former chair of the Orange County GOP, characterized Trump’s trial as a political prosecution and said the verdict “should surprise no one.”

“A politically motivated prosecutor and a hostile judge set the trial up for so many prejudicial errors,” Baugh said in a prepared statement. “President Trump will have his opportunity to appeal and I am confident that a fair hearing will expose and resolve these issues.”

And longtime Riverside Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who is fighting to retain his once-safe seat in a now-competitive swing district, said in a statement on Thursday evening that Trump’s prosecution was political — but his comment was more muted than the loudest GOP voices.

Calvert said that Americans who believe that “justice should be blind to politics” should be “concerned” by the trial’s outcome. He continued: “It’s alarming that our criminal justice system continues to be taken advantage of by partisan prosecutors who want to use the power of their office to influence our democratic elections.”

Whether to lock arms with Trump has been a fraught question for Republicans in California for nearly a decade, but especially this year. Republicans hold such a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives that a handful of hyper-competitive races in the Golden State could determine which party controls the chamber. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated 10 California races as competitive.

Remaining silent on the verdict makes sense for Republicans in those competitive battleground districts, said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine.

“You’ll notice that the loudest voices supporting Trump on this tend to be Republicans in very safe seats,” Schnur said. “Candidates who need to reach swing voters don’t have that luxury.”

One challenge for candidates, said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser, is that partisan allegiances determine how voters viewed the trial.

Polling has found that Democrats overwhelmingly saw the trial as fair, while only a tiny percentage of Republicans agreed. Independents were evenly split. A Trump-like message about a rigged, unfair trial that might resonate with a candidate’s Republican base could also turn off independents, Kousser said.

“Anyone trying to win a November race in a competitive district needs to worry about both mobilizing their base through more Trump-like rhetoric, but also the cost of alienating the middle,” he said.

Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who isn’t involved in any congressional races, said that while the verdict can be used as a tool by both parties to turn out voters in November, it’s a “touchy subject.”

“You may have independents in congressional seats who are indifferent to the verdict, but don’t necessarily want to see Republican incumbents defending Trump or decrying the verdict,” Stutzman said.

But Shawn Steel, who represents California on the Republican National Committee and is married to Steel, of Orange County, said the verdict will have “absolutely no impact” on California’s House races.

“The White House got the verdict they planned years ago,” Steel said. “The Manhattan jurors who convicted Trump did it out of malice and hate. Today’s verdict, along with the not-guilty verdict of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, proved the steep decline of trust in the American criminal justice.”

Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney who also represents California on the Republican National Committee and whose law firm represents the Trump campaign, said Californians are more concerned with quality-of-life issues, such as homelessness, crime and illegal immigration than they are with the trial.

“People are fed up,” she said. “People are much more motivated in this election to vote because things are getting bad here in California.”

While California Republican House candidates were largely quiet, some of their allies in other states, such as Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake and vice presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, were not.

“This was a rigged, disgraceful trial,” Trump told reporters after leaving the courtroom. “The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5 by the people.”

The Biden campaign said Thursday’s verdict showed that the law applied to everyone, but warned that the only way to keep Trump out of the White House is voting in November.

“Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president,” campaign spokesman Michael Tyler said. “The threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater. He is running an increasingly unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution, pledging to be a dictator ‘on Day One’ and calling for our Constitution to be ‘terminated’ so he can regain and keep power.”

In the wake of Trump’s conviction, Democrats seized upon 23 vulnerable House Republicans who had endorsed the former president, including Duarte, Garcia, Calvert and Steel.

“House Republicans have continued to put Donald Trump first and the American people last,” said Courtney Rice, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Their districts deserve better than their cult-like adherence to a wannabe dictator. Each and every one of them should rescind their endorsement, but won’t.”

Trump’s trial, which began in April in New York City, was one of four felony cases that Trump was facing, though it was thought to be the only one likely to see a trial before the November election.

The verdict hinged on whether Trump falsified business records to hide a $130,000 hush money payment that Michael Cohen — Trump’s lawyer and, later, a witness for the prosecution — made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels, who alleged she’d had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade prior.

Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg had to convince the jury that Trump not only commanded Cohen to make the payments, but that he did so in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, rather than to shield his family from the story. Trump pleaded not guilty and denied the sexual encounter with Daniels; Cohen testified that he had been deeply involved in the scheme.

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