Tenney’s red-meat rhetoric alarms House Republicans
Rep. Claudia Tenney learned last week that she’d been outraised by her Democratic opponent for the second quarter in a row, a sign that her hold on a moderate upstate New York district is in peril.
But if GOP leaders thought that would be a five-alarm reminder for the vulnerable freshman to pursue a moderate path to reelection, they were mistaken. Days later, Tenney called for the jailing of Hillary Clinton and James Comey — embracing a hard-line stance championed by President Donald Trump but shunned by most GOP leaders and virtually all moderates.
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“Lock them up!” a Tenney campaign email blared on Tuesday, touting her call for a special counsel to investigate the Democrat presidential nominee and former FBI director.
Tenney’s red-meat rhetoric may play well with a national GOP base that’s loyal to Trump. But some Republicans are nervous that she’s boxing herself into a posture that won’t play well in her center-right district.
Tenney is one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House. Her once reliable GOP district is now considered a toss-up by political handicappers. But unlike other colleagues in swing districts who have distanced themselves from President Donald Trump and shunned partisan rhetoric, Tenney is leaning into both.
In an interview, Tenney shrugged off the complaints from jittery Republicans, saying she has a better feel for the district than anyone and that she’s simply calling issues like she sees them — not concertedly embracing Trump.
“I praise him when I think he’s got the right thing and I don’t support him when he’s done the wrong thing,” she said, later adding: “I think if anyone can figure out a way to win… I’m very competitive. I have a good feel. I’m in my district.”
But behind the scenes, GOP operatives think Tenney is damaging her reelection chances.
“If she would stop talking, she’d probably win,” one senior Republican operative said. “But every week she says something controversial or stupid. These are self-inflected wounds.”
Tenney has developed a bombastic reputation on Capitol Hill, adopting Trump-like rhetoric to defend scandal-plagued administration officials or blast the media for “fake news.” She accused the “deep state,” for example, of setting up Health and Human Services Secretary Ben Carson with his now infamous $31,000 furniture purchase, though Carson himself said his wife made the order. Jimmy Kimmel poked fun at her for those remarks.
After the school shooting spree in Parkland, Florida, Tenney was widely criticized when she said that “it’s interesting that so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats, but the media doesn’t talk about that either.” And this week, Tenney joined some of the most conservative members of the House to accuse top Justice Department and FBI officials of malfeasance.
“These elitists all held positions of higher authority when they appear to have broken the law… Why are these Obama administration cronies getting away with it?” her campaign email read.
That rhetoric is unusual for a swing-district Republican; typically they prefer to talk about tax cuts and other pocketbook issues. Among those alarmed that Tenney is about to hand the district to Democrats is her GOP predecessor, former Rep. Richard Hanna.
“Her unmitigated support of all things Trump is more a function of her own personal ambition and general extremism on all subjects,” said Hanna, a staunch Trump critic who is backing Tenney’s Democratic opponent, Anthony Brindisi. “Claudia is a wasted seat.”
Tenney waived off criticism of her campaign strategy. Establishment Republicans, she said, backed her primary opponents in a three-way race in 2016 when “I had $200,000 and my opponents had $3 million.”
“I still won by 10 points,” she said, arguing that she runs a “hard campaign at the grassroots… and that’s how I’ve been able to win.”