Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Pat Roberts of Kansas are planning to skip the Republican National Convention next month as the host state of Florida deals with the biggest outbreak of coronavirus cases in the nation.
Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Francis Rooney of Florida are sticking with their plans not to attend, even though the convention is now in their home state.
Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior senator, has not committed to attending. Neither has John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate Republican, or Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican.
As new cases surge in Florida, including 15,300 reported on Sunday, more Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to the event, or deciding to skip it all together. The GOP, which moved the convention to Jacksonville from Charlotte, North Carolina, after balking at health precautions there, now finds itself locked into a state with a far bigger virus problem, and planning an event whose attendance is waning as the pandemic escalates.
“Everybody just assumes no one is going,” said Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois, an honorary state co-chairman for the Trump campaign.
LaHood was one of eight House members — from Illinois, New York, Arizona, Indiana and Michigan — who told The New York Times they did not plan to attend, joining party veterans like Sens. Charles E. Grassley, Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins who have already said they will skip the event.
President Donald Trump, in the meantime, may not get the restriction-free celebration he yearns for after all. The city of Jacksonville is requiring facial coverings in any public space where social distancing is not possible. And in a news release last week, the host committee said every attendee within the convention perimeter “will be tested and temperature checked each day,” without providing further details.
Still, even as growing numbers of elected leaders express wariness about attending, a strong contingent of Republican National Committee members — many of whom have their political fortunes tied to Trump — say they still plan to go. In interviews, more than a dozen of them said they were committed, even “proud,” to celebrate the renomination of Trump.
A Times survey of almost 70 Republican officials and Senate and House members showed a divide over the convention between the members of Congress taking a more cautious approach, and rank-and file-officials, like locally elected delegates and RNC members, who were more inclined to go.
The result may be a crowd that is far Trumpier than in 2016, when the GOP establishment, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, squelched its misgivings and nominated Trump, an outsider with questionable commitment to party orthodoxy.
This time, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader who has tied himself closely to the president, is likely to offer an enthusiastic endorsement, and other ardent supporters of Trump, like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, are likely to get speaking slots.
“It’s a risk you have to take,” said Morton Blackwell, 80, an RNC member from Virginia who has attended every party convention since he was the youngest elected delegate backing Barry Goldwater in 1964. “You take risks every day. You drive down the street and a cement truck could crash into you. You can’t not do what you have to do because of some possibility of a bad result.”
As recently as two weeks ago, Republican convention planners appeared bullish about attendance.
At a briefing for Senate chiefs of staff in late June, officials warned that some lawmakers might have to stay in hotels outside Jacksonville given expected crowds. Party officials were considering docking cruise ships in the city’s port to provide extra lodging capacity, as the city did during the 2005 Super Bowl, according to two people familiar with the briefing. The proposal drew some laughter from congressional staffers in attendance.
Since then, Florida has become the epicenter of the pandemic, raising questions about whether Jacksonville could stage anything on the scale of what Trump is demanding for his renomination.
Several of Trump’s critics within his own party have already said they do not plan to attend; among them are Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Collins of Maine, who faces a difficult reelection race this fall.
Roberts, 84, told reporters last week he would likely not be attending because he had “some things to do in Kansas” and, in any case, he “didn’t know what was canceled and what was not and whatever.” Roberts is retiring after this year.
Neither Blunt, Diaz-Balart nor Rooney attended the 2016 convention either, but as Trump has tightened his grip on the party, he has become less forgiving to lawmakers he sees as disloyal or insufficiently supportive.
Many other Republicans are expressing caution as the virus ravages the South. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who was a top-billed speaker at the convention four years ago in Cleveland, has called the convention this year “a challenging situation.”
“We will have to wait and see how things look in late August to determine whether we can safely convene that many people,” he told reporters in his home state of Kentucky last week.
Republican senators facing tough reelection battles declined to say whether they planned to go. Aides to five of the six most vulnerable Republicans on the ballot this fall — Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — did not respond to repeated inquiries about their plans.
Of 53 members of Congress surveyed by The Times who responded to inquiries about their plans, roughly half said they definitely planned to attend. Others either said they would not attend, or were closely watching the situation to see what safety precautions convention planners would put in place and where the caseload stood in north Florida in mid-August. The convention is currently scheduled to take place from Aug. 24-27.
Of the 15 RNC members interviewed, all but one said they planned to go to Jacksonville, with most also aiming to attend the party’s official business meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The RNC members expressed little concern about the virus’s spread in Florida, with some comparing the risk of attending a rally to shopping at big-box stores.
The Republican approach differs significantly from the one Democrats are taking for their convention; last month the party moved its event to a smaller venue and instructed delegates to stay home from Milwaukee, as the party transitions to a virtual gathering.
The RNC members have little sympathy for members of Congress who pass on the convention. Party committee members have far more need to demonstrate loyalty to Trump — both for the president’s approval and for their own Trump-loving constituents — than do members of Congress skipping Jacksonville.
“It is not only my duty, but also my honor go to Charlotte and Jacksonville to reelect President Trump,” said Art Wittich, an RNC member from Montana. “As such, I am willing to assume any risk to do so.”
Wittich said members of Congress who skip Jacksonville are “probably avoiding the convention as a political statement rather than as a legitimate public health concern. So be it.”
Trump’s chief defenders in Congress echoed that concern.
“Everyone in the media wants to act like it’s some big deal that Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander aren’t going to the convention,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “The reality is the number of delegates craving the octogenarians and septuagenarians of the Senate are surely lower than the number who have purchased their third Star Wars costume.”
Last month Trump moved most of the convention’s proceedings from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city, because Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina would not guarantee a late-August arena gathering free of social distancing and mask-wearing. Several of the RNC members interviewed are planning to first go to Charlotte, where the party’s delegates will conduct much of their official business, including voting on the party platform, before relocating to Jacksonville for the big party desired by Trump.
Other party leaders in the House and Senate have yet to commit one way or another, biding their time as they watch caseloads in Florida spike.
Besides Thune, Rubio and Cheney, others who are on the fence include Senate Committee chairmen like Jim Risch of Idaho, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
“Listen, I’m taking COVID seriously,” said Johnson, 65, who is a vocal ally of Trump. The senator told WISN-TV in Milwaukee that he was looking at what precautions party officials would put in place, but he was not sure “whether I’d really have any use or not.”
The conditions that led Trump to move the convention out of North Carolina now apply equally to Florida. Jacksonville officials late last month said that city residents must wear face masks, though there has been no word yet on restricting how many people can fit inside the city’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Republican officials are also considering hosting some of the gatherings outdoors at the city’s football or minor-league baseball stadiums.
Nearly all of the RNC members interviewed said they had little hesitancy about joining a gathering of Trump supporters to cheer on his nomination.
“If I can safely go to Walmart or a restaurant, I am confident we can safely gather to conduct the important business of the Republican Party renominating the president and vice president,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC member from Mississippi. “We were prepared to work with folks in North Carolina to make it safe, and that is exactly what the RNC is doing in Jacksonville.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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