Rep. Mike Coffman threw his hands in the air and stomped away. Rep. Leonard Lance smiled ruefully as he said the White House was "cross" with him. And Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick cited the uncertainties of his schedule as he stepped into an elevator.
The question of whether endangered GOP candidates want President Donald Trump to campaign with them sparked dodges, lengthy pauses and a cascade of caveats in interviews with about two dozen GOP House members who are facing varying degrees of competition in races this fall.
But the answer several Republicans from tough districts have settled on is, sure — if Trump will campaign on their terms.
“It depends,” said Fitzpatrick, a Republican from a suburban Philadelphia district that Democrats are targeting. “On what issue is he campaigning for me? If he campaigns on term limits — I just met with him on that. If he’s able to get public support behind it, absolutely.”
But would a campaign rally be helpful? “We’ll see, we’ll see what our schedule is looking like,” he said, getting into an elevator at the Capitol.
Rep. David Valadao of California, whose district Hillary Clinton won by nearly 16 percentage points, offered a similar calculation: “If it’s a topic like water or something positive on immigration that actually benefits us — I think if the president of the United States wants to come to the district to highlight something that’s actually helpful to the district, I think it would make sense, but it depends on the topic.”
And Miami-area Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents the most Democratic-leaning district in the country held by a Republican running for reelection this year, suggested he would welcome Trump's help — if he "supports my work."
"I’m not asking nor have I ever asked anyone to come down and campaign, I don’t need it from anyone,” said Curbelo, who is leading an effort to force votes on immigration-related bills, rankling House conservatives. “The conditions for anyone to support me, to campaign for me, is that they support my work and are helping me achieve it for the benefit of the country."
Midterm elections are often challenging for the president’s party, and the question of where polarizing presidents can campaign tends to be a fraught one. It’s a reality that has applied to a range of leaders including Presidents George W. Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014, when beleaguered candidates from their respective parties were loathe to make joint appearances or offer public praise.
This year, Trump has emerged as a strong fundraiser for his party, and in the red-state Senate contests where Republicans are playing offense, from Missouri to West Virginia, GOP strategists say he is an asset and their best surrogate for energizing the conservative base.
While Trump remains enormously popular with Republican rank-and-file voters, his presidency has energized progressive activists across the map — and in competitive House districts, especially those that Clinton won, his presence on the campaign trail tethers vulnerable GOP candidates to the national party just as they scramble to localize their races and separate from the Trump-stamped Republican brand.
“It might help get out the base who might not be as fervently for a candidate such as myself,” said retiring GOP Rep. Ryan Costello, who currently represents another Philadelphia-area suburban district Clinton won. “I think, though, it would be a reminder, negatively, to swing voters who view him unfavorably but who I would want to have respond to my message of being an independent check-and-balance.”
Certainly, no one is actively touting the idea that they will oppose Trump showing up in their district — though some, like Lance of New Jersey, suggested such an appearance was unlikely.
“I think that the White House may be cross with me, because I didn’t vote for the health care bill or the tax bill,” he said. “I respect that and I’m going to campaign on my own record.”
Others, like Coffman, who represents a toss-up district in Colorado, wouldn’t entertain the question at all.
"No, I’m not going there,” Coffman said as he rolled his eyes, waving his arms up in frustration. “You got what you needed,” he added, and walked away.
And it's unlikely that those uneasy with a Trump appearance would face pressure from the national party to change their minds.
"It's up to each candidate and their campaign to determine what their strategy is and the type of surrogates they want in their districts," said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Still, the majority of candidates McClatchy interviewed said they would be open to Trump on their trail — though their enthusiasm in answering that question, and the level of detail they provided in their responses, swung wildly.
“Yeah, I've encouraged every president, every president, to come to my district,” Rep. Jeff Denham of California said after pausing for a few seconds. Like Valadao, who also represents the Central Valley, Denham then turned back to local issues, referencing a water controversy. “To have our president come to take a look at our water being shut off, at our communities being devastated, that is something I would definitely support."
Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who represents suburban Kansas City, was more succinct: "Yeah of course,” he said. “He's the president of the United States."
Other candidates facing tough contests — or contests that could become challenging — from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California to Rep. Brian Mast of Florida to Rep. Steve Chabot of the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, all said that they would welcome a Trump swing.
But Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said it was one thing for candidates in competitive seats to voice enthusiasm for a Trump visit. It’s another thing entirely to actually pursue one.
“They’ve got to take care of their base,” he said. “If you’re telling your base, ‘I don’t want Trump to come,’ you run the risk of being judged by that, and having people unhappy and everything that comes along with that. … I think it’s a different issue when it comes to actual campaigning. I think we’ll see Trump in really red places more than anywhere else.”
But Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who represents a district Clinton won, beamed when asked if he would want Trump to show up in his suburban Dallas district. He answered in the affirmative before a reporter finished asking the question.
"Awesome, I welcome him with open arms," Sessions said. "Can you invite him for me?"
Kate Irby and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.