Republican leaders are fighting back against suggestions that the GOP is somehow responsible for attacks and threats against Democrats over passage of healthcare reform.
At a press conference Thursday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, said that he too had been attacked – and then accused Democrats of trying to exploit the actions against their members for political purposes.
“It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain,” Representative Cantor said. “That is why I have deep concerns that some – [Democratic campaign] chairman Chris Van Hollen and [national Democratic] chairman Tim Kaine in particular – are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon.”
Cantor also said that someone had shot a bullet through the window of his Richmond campaign office on Monday and that he had received threatening e-mails.
At the heart of the frenzy is an intense partisan battle for public opinion over healthcare reform, which will be a key issue in the fall midterms. Some Republicans have voiced concern that media coverage of the attacks against Democrats could discredit legitimate opposition to healthcare reform.
Democratic leaders say that at least 10 of their members have expressed concerns over their safety, and some offices have suffered vandalism, including those of Reps. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York and Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. On Thursday, the office of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York reported receiving a threatening letter containing an unidentified white powder, according to wire reports.
Earlier this week, at the home of the brother of Rep. Tom Perriello (D) of Virginia, a propane line to an outdoor grill was cut after his address was posted on a “tea party” website.
A Virginia tea party activist said he had mistakenly posted the brother’s address instead of the congressman’s, suggesting healthcare reform opponents “drop by.” In an interview Thursday on MSNBC-TV, the activist, Nigel Coleman, said he did not intend for anyone to commit vandalism.
Last weekend, tea party protesters gathered in Washington to agitate against final passage of healthcare reform, and some ugly scenes ensued. Minority and gay members of Congress say they heard epithets, and one member was spat upon.
The danger for Republicans is that the actions of a few tar the party. The same danger holds for the tea party movement. The two are not synonymous, although 74 percent of tea partyers self-identify as Republican or independent but leaning Republican, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. Democrats have blamed Republicans for not doing enough to discourage violence.
The verbal sniping continued Thursday. After Cantor’s press conference, the office of Representative Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), responded.
“Today, Mr. Cantor had the opportunity to join Mr. Van Hollen in calling for restraint. Instead, he chose to use his press conference to level false accusations,” spokesman Doug Thornell said in a statement. “This is straight out of the Republicans’ political playbook of deflecting responsibility and distracting attention away from a serious issue.”
Cantor’s office quickly fired back.
“With all due respect, perhaps the DCCC chairman should listen to Mr. Cantor’s statement where he repeatedly called for restraint and condemned violence,” Cantor’s spokesman, Brad Dayspring, said in a press release. “It’s very simple. If Chairman Van Hollen misspoke, he should correct the record, and if not, he and the DCCC should accept responsibility for their actions.”
Complicating matters for Republicans is the rhetoric of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), a favorite of tea partyers. On a Twitter feed Tuesday, Ms. Palin called on conservatives not to retreat, but to “RELOAD!” On her Facebook page, she posted a US map with cross-hair targets on the states where she plans to campaign against Democrats who voted for healthcare reform.
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona defended Palin, his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign, saying that such “battleground” language is typical for political campaigns.