As Donald Trump heads to California, vulnerable House Republicans navigate his guilty verdict

Before the historic guilty verdict in former President Donald Trump‘s felony case, vulnerable House Republicans had a tight rope to walk.

Starting with his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has been a polarizing figure in American politics. Candidates in Southern California’s swing districts these past election cycles — like Rep. Michelle Steel in California’s 45th, where voters solidly picked President Joe Biden over Trump in 2020 while electing to send Steel back to Congress — have had to weigh aligning themselves with a president who could turn away independent voters or losing out on support from a Republican base that venerates Trump.

And with Trump set to touch down in Southern California later this week to bolster his campaign coffers, that balancing act just got a bit tricker. His visit comes on the heels of his conviction on 34 felony counts related to falsifying business documents to influence the 2016 presidential election illegally.

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While many Republicans defended Trump following the verdict — echoing Trump’s own criticism of the judge and allegations that the trial was “rigged” — there’s been silence from several of those more vulnerable House Republican incumbents and candidates in deep blue California. And it’s unclear which, if any, Republican candidates will pursue the chance to chat and get their picture with Trump when he’s in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.

Steel and Rep. Young Kim, whose district spans Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, did not respond to requests for comment about the verdict. Their social media accounts have also been void of any supportive posts.

A spokesperson for Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, also did not respond to requests for comment. His social media accounts of late, too, did not reference the trial.

“It’s a very difficult line to walk. Trump and his campaign have made it clear for some time now that their strategy is to attack the judge and the judicial system,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political messaging at USC and UC Berkeley.

“That’s a very savvy way of motivating his base, but it’s not as clear whether that helps with swing voters,” Schnur added. “So Republicans in safe districts can follow Trump’s lead without any hesitation, but those running in competitive races might not have that luxury.”

Still, a few Republicans have voiced support for Trump since the verdict, including Scott Baugh, who is running in the 47th congressional district in Orange County. The open seat is considered to “lean Democrat” by the Cook Political Report election analyst site.

“The verdict should surprise no one,” said Baugh. “A politically motivated prosecutor and a hostile judge set the trial up for so many prejudicial errors. President Trump will have his opportunity to appeal, and I am confident that a fair hearing will expose and resolve these issues.”

“Political prosecutions are on the rise,” he said.

And Rep. Ken Calvert — who represents CA-41 in Riverside County, considered a “Republican toss-up” by the Cook Political Report — expressed his concern with the verdict on social media without directly invoking the former president’s name.

“Americans who believe that justice should be blind to politics and administered equally should be concerned with today’s outcome,” Calvert said. “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.”

While voters do care about “law and order” or “the rule of law,” Schnur said, it’s only one of many issues that may be at the top of their minds this election season.

Even before the trial, Republicans in swing districts homed in on issues like immigration and inflation, said Schnur.

And those are the issues that are more likely to resonate with swing voters, said Jon Fleischman, the former executive director of the California Republican Party.

“At the end of the day, swing voters are going to care about their gas prices, their grocery prices and fentanyl coming over the border,” said Fleischman. “I think this is the stuff (Trump’s guilty verdict) that all the partisan people on either side obsess over, and I don’t think swing voters are focused on it.”

Case in point: While neither Kim nor Steel has posted about Trump on social media, both have used their respective X accounts, formerly Twitter, on Friday to discuss the southern border.

Still, while focusing on so-called kitchen table issues may be “just as strong a formula for Republicans in competitive races today as it was last week,” Schnur said, “it’s going to be a greater challenge for them to get that message heard now.”

“Already, you’ve seen many Republicans talking about how there are other topics that are going to be more important to the voters than the trial,” he continued. “That means they don’t want to talk about the trial.”

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