WASHINGTON – All national political conventions are ultimately about the presidential candidate. That's especially true at this year's Republican National Convention, where leading speakers demonstrated a single-minded focus on President Donald Trump but barely mentioned the party's struggle to protect its Senate majority and gain ground in the House.
Halfway through the four nights, the parade of speakers that's unswervingly extolled Trump — including his own children — and other tactics that veer from typical convention norms have underscored his dominance of the GOP. Critics say they also highlight his tunnel-vision obsession with his own political fortunes at the expense of promoting down-ballot candidates, a regular feature of conventions past that has largely been ignored.
“This isn’t a party convention, it’s a Trump convention,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and former congressional staffer who opposes Trump. “If Republicans lose the Senate in November, we should look back at this week as a lost opportunity to introduce the country” to more GOP congressional candidates.
No. 2 House Republican leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana on Monday praised Trump's hospital visits after the lawmaker's 2017 shooting, savaged Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and said Democrats “want to burn down the foundations of our country." Scalise made no direct reference to the GOP's faint hopes of regaining the House majority in November's elections.
Sean Parnell, a GOP challenger for a Democratic-held seat in western Pennsylvania, didn’t specifically ask listeners to award Republicans House control. He praised Trump and said Democrats will “destroy anyone they consider a heretic.”
There were prime-time appearances by high-profile GOP lawmakers like Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Both called for Trump's reelection but didn't mention their party's fight for congressional control.
Instead, the convention has featured attention-grabbing events like Trump pardoning a convicted bank robber, naturalizing new citizens and giving prime-time slots to speakers with fringe views. There have also been speeches from Jerusalem by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and from the White House Rose Garden by the first lady, Melania Trump.
“To think you'll have a traditional convention with an untraditional candidate is a mistake," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a one-time leader of the House GOP's political arm. “It's not going to work that way."
The inattention to the GOP's congressional efforts might have changed Wednesday when Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, delivered prime-time remarks. She faces a tough reelection in a battleground state that will also be crucial for Trump to win.
But Ernst's only mention of policy action was to tout the president's executive orders on agriculture regulation and renewable fuel, as well as the administration's trade negotiations.
In fact, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik was the only member of Congress to mention the work of Congress during her remarks Wednesday. And that was fighting Trump's impeachment, which ultimately was a statement of loyalty to Trump alone.
“I was proud to lead the effort standing up for the Constitution, President Trump and most importantly the American people,” Stefanik said. “This attack was not just on the president, it was an attack on you — your voice and your vote.”
Other Republicans in potentially competitive races slated to speak this week included Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Burgess Owens, fighting to oust a House Democrat in Utah.
Speaking Wednesday, Owens managed to squeeze into the end of his 15-minute speech a plug to “win back the House, keep the Senate and give our president four more years.”
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., were expected to emphasize the importance of GOP congressional control.
Democrats did use their convention last week to call attention to their congressional campaigns.
Candidates given evening speaking time included Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, their most threatened incumbent, and Sara Gideon, who is challenging Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who leads Democrats’ Senate political committee, all delivered pitches for their party.
“Democrats must take back the Senate,” Schumer said in a video with a blurry Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.
The coronavirus pandemic exploded both parties' plans for traditional conventions this year, forcing each to be almost completely virtual and reducing opportunities for speeches that would receive broad or even local coverage.
Usually, there are lengthy afternoon convention meetings that television networks ignore. But those sessions let nearly unlimited numbers of congressional candidates deliver speeches, yielding video that omits the nearly empty arenas but gets coverage back home and might catch the eyes of potential supporters and donors.
Those afternoon speaking opportunities are mostly gone this year.
“There's something about the big platform of a regular convention, the flags in the background, the big signs, there's just that feel,” said Mark Pfeifle, a GOP consultant and former party operative.
Even at normal conventions, coveted evening speaking slots that can be career launchers are hard to come by for most congressional candidates. This year, both parties tried to keep their evening programming to two hours. Plenty of Republicans in close contests didn’t get time during this period, when television networks were broadcasting portions of the event.
GOP Sens. Steve Daines of Montana, David Perdue of Georgia and Martha McSally of Arizona, along with Republican challenger John James of Michigan, were among those recording brief videos that the party planned to stream online before the main evening speeches.
Other Republicans were taking less visible roles.
Collins, facing perhaps her toughest reelection fight in her notoriously independent state, “was not asked” to submit a video to the convention, said her spokesman, Kevin Kelley. Collins has tried to distance herself from Trump and has declined to say if she'll vote for him.
Sen. Thom Tillis, in a coin-flip race in closely divided North Carolina, did not attend Trump’s brief Monday appearance with delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tillis’ hometown. His campaign told local reporters he was at another event. Spokesman Andrew Romero said Tillis would attend Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday in Washington.
Campaign aides to Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the Senate’s most endangered Republicans, did not answer emails and phone calls inquiring about his convention plans.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.