ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Rep. Charlie Dent, the mild-mannered Republican moderate, has spent all year defying President Donald Trump.
On Friday, Trump’s foot soldiers punched back in the most Trumpian way possible — 10 times as hard. About 125 conservative allies of the president converged here, at a park in the heart of Dent’s eastern Pennsylvania district, to deliver a blunt message to Dent and other GOP moderates who cross the president.
“You’re gonna get primaried,” said Adam Gingrich, a conservative political consultant who emceed the event.
It was the first event in what organizers promise will be a nationwide campaign to highlight what they see as betrayals by Republican lawmakers resisting the Trump agenda. They’ll be testing the degree to which the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted toward Trump and away from traditional Republicanism, and the possibility of punishing the offending lawmakers with primary challenges.
Trump boosters who organized the event, including Americans for Limited Government and the late Phyllis Schlafly’s American Eagles, called Dent a sellout to Democrats, saying he’d lost touch with the GOP. Dent is co-chair of a 50-strong group of House moderate Republicans, the Tuesday Group, who infuriated Trump in the spring when he helped lead a charge against a GOP bill to replace Obamacare.
Trump privately confronted Dent and reportedly accused him of “destroying the Republican Party.” On Friday, Trump’s supporters echoed the sentiment.
“I looked Charlie Dent in the eye and I saw the swamp,” Gloria “Lee” Snover, chair of the Northampton County GOP and a Trump-backing member of the Electoral College, who spoke at the rally. “In times past, I’ve supported Charlie Dent as the only alternative. But now, with his disregard and disrespect to my president … I will no longer be able to support Congressman Dent. For the first time, we finally are going to have primary challengers we can get behind.”
Dent has argued that his decisions — event when they’re counter to the president’s — are simply attempts to faithfully represent the interests of his district.
“I have repeatedly made it clear that on issues such as reforming the VA, making the regulatory environment more reasonable, improving America’s infrastructure, providing necessary funding to help meet the needs of our military and spurring economic growth, I will work constructively and supportively with President Trump,” Dent said in a statement after the rally.
“At the same time,” he added, “I am not a sycophant. If the president errs on issues that are important to the people of the 15th, or for the entire country, I will continue to state my opinions respectfully and civilly.”
Rally organizers boasted that many of the attendees had traveled from out of state, and it was unclear whether their anger at Dent was an accurate representation of any GOP unrest inside the district.
But because of his repeated criticisms of Trump, Dent drew the brunt of attacks at the red-meat rally, which featured “build that wall” and “lock her up” chants that were staples of Trump’s 2016 campaign. The utterance of Dent’s name drew boos and even shouts of “traitor” from the ultraconservative crowd.
A few waved “Dump Dent” signs alongside traditional Trump campaign flags and banners. Others name-checked moderate Pennsylvania Republicans like Brian Fitzpatrick and Ryan Costello and suggested they should be on notice, too. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cast a decisive vote against a GOP bill to replace Obamacare last month, drew special fury from the crowd.
“You’ve got brain problems but you’re running around making policy?” said Daphne Goggins, a Republican ward leader from Philadelphia, said, referring to McCain’s bout with brain cancer. “No, sit down somewhere.”
Republicans who opposed Trump’s priorities were chastised as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — and urged to leave the party.
As a Tuesday Group co-chair, Dent was treated as the ringleader of a House GOP faction that has bucked a president who prizes fealty. Trump scrambled the political landscape with his upset win in November, and now Republicans who have often recoiled at his manner, his values and his policies have found themselves tangling with a GOP base that supports him and forgives — even welcomes — his brashness.
“Our objective is to shine a light on the Tuesday Group itself and the obstructive role it’s been,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. “This cabal of liberal Republicans are effectively obstructing the president’s agenda and turning the House over to Nancy Pelosi.”
Leaders at Friday’s rally said to expect similar events in districts of Republican lawmakers like Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who have also broken from Trump at critical moments, though their next destination is still undetermined. Other conservative groups, such as Tea Party Patriots and Heritage Action, said that lawmakers who oppose Trump’s agenda in the coming weeks would find themselves squeezed as well.
“I’m seeing hundreds of emails from our supporters each week. … ‘I’m sick of it, we need to be voting these people out of office,’” said Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin. “‘We need to vote them out in primaries.’”
Martin said her group, which has supported upstart conservative primaries against incumbent Republicans in previous years, hasn’t yet shifted to candidate “recruitment mode.”
The groups behind Friday’s rally say their immediate goal is to pressure moderate Republicans ahead of a series of explosive votes later this month on raising the debt ceiling, keeping the government open and possibly funding the president’s proposed border wall. A debate on tax reform legislation is expected this fall as well.
But these Trump allies left no doubt that if GOP moderates continue to resist Trump, they’ll face political consequences as well. Underscoring the point: A prospective challenger to Dent, Pennsylvania state Rep. Justin Simmons, joined Friday’s rally. Simmons said the cornerstone of a potential bid, which he says he’s “90 percent” certain to launch within a few weeks, would be supporting Trump’s agenda.
“Sixty-three million Americans in the country, including myself — we voted for Donald Trump. We voted for a Republican Congress. We voted for them with the expectation that they would fulfill the promises they ran on,” Simmons said in an interview. He received multiple shout-outs at the rally and delivered impromptu remarks, earning cheers when he asked whether he should take on Dent.
Simmons said he’s appealing to conservative groups and to Trump’s campaign team for support. Dent has already tangled with Simmons, issuing a campaign statement this week noting Simmons once sought his endorsement. Text messages from Simmons to Dent were included in the release, including one August 2016 exchange in which Simmons asked Dent whether the GOP could replace Trump atop the party’s ticket.
Others may still enter the GOP primary against Dent, so even as speakers stopped short of outright endorsements of Simmons, they did their best to bloody Dent for the upcoming campaign.
“If you can’t support our president … you must get out of the way,” said Ed Martin, president of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles. “The Tuesday Group has fought the president at every turn on policy.”
“I’m looking right at you, Charlie,” he added. “You are the problem.”
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