By Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona, CNN
Republicans felt they were finally united in their quest to take back the House and Senate — with the political winds at their back and President Joe Biden reeling from an array of domestic and international problems.
Then the Republican National Committee last week ripped open old January 6 wounds.
GOP lawmakers on Monday were aghast that the RNC had used the words “legitimate political discourse” in a censure resolution describing the roles of GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois in their efforts to investigate the insurrection with Democrats on the House select committee.
They viewed both the effort to punish the pair of Republicans — along with language interpreted as a way to whitewash the deadly attack — as an unforced error over a divide the party has long sought to paper over: former President Donald Trump and his role in inciting the mob that stormed the US Capitol.
In particular, some Republicans directed the criticism squarely at Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the RNC.
“I think Republicans ought to stop shooting at Republicans, including the chairman,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the GOP leadership, told CNN.
Asked if McDaniel should step aside, Senate GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota said: “Oh, I don’t know. Ultimately, it will be up to the RNC. But it’s just not a constructive move, when you’re trying to win elections and take on Democrats, to take on Republicans. It’s just not helpful.”
Privately, Republicans began to reach out to McDaniel — including her uncle, GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who exchanged texts with her over the weekend. While Romney said McDaniel is a “wonderful person and doing her very best,” he said he had made clear to her how he viewed the matter.
“It could not have been a more inappropriate message,” Romney said before adding: “Anything that my party does that comes across as being stupid is not going to help us.”
Republicans want to make the midterms a referendum on Biden, the economy, crime and school closures during the pandemic — not a rehash of January 6, 2021. But with Trump still obsessed over his election loss and hell-bent on punishing his perceived enemies in the party, Republicans keep finding themselves sucked back into the former President’s 2020 conspiracies and lies of a stolen election. And it’s especially frustrating for Republicans at a time when they see Biden’s poll numbers slump and they have historical trends on their side.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he had spoken with McDaniel about the controversy, who had told him that she “condemned the violence” but had argued they were criticizing the panel for targeting individuals who hadn’t engaged in violence that day.
“I think all of us up here want to talk about forward and not backward,” Graham said. “We want to talk about why we should be in charge of the House and the Senate, and when you’re not talking about that, that takes you in the wrong direction.”
Seeking to deter the outcry, the RNC sent talking points to its allies saying the committee “denounces all acts of political violence and lawlessness,” arguing that the January 6 House select committee “has greatly exceeded its stated purpose” of investigating the attack.
An RNC spokeswoman also defended the censure effort on Monday, and argued the GOP is united in its mission to win back the House and Senate this fall.
“Republicans in both chambers of Congress and across the country remain united in our efforts to hold Democrats and Biden accountable for their failures to take back the House and Senate come November,” the spokeswoman said.
And the party committee got some backup on Monday.
“There’s no doubt that there were tens of thousands of people engaged in peaceful free speech that the press and Democrats try to demonize falsely,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who voted to overturn two states’ electoral votes in the hours after the attack.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who also sought to throw out Biden’s victories in two states, said of the January 6 committee: “I think it’s illegitimate. … They’re not following their own rules. And I think, frankly, it’s, it harkens back to the House Committee on un-American affairs.”
And Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and who voted to decertify Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, would not say if he disagreed with the RNC’s move, saying only that he condemned the violence on January 6.
“If that’s what they want to say,” the Florida Republican said when asked if he disagreed with the RNC resolution. “I’m clear what my belief has been.”
The select committee has cast a wide net to probe all the events that led up to the attack — and has prompted sharp backlash from Trump as it has probed his actions and inner circle.
On Monday, a number of Republicans refused to take positions on the matter, including Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who indicated they would rather engage on policy matters more important to voters back home, while Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he had yet to review it.
“I did not pay any attention to that,” said Johnson, who’s facing a competitive reelection this year.
Yet even a number of Trump allies were taken aback by the RNC’s move.
“I think they’re out of their league, quite honestly,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican. “I mean the beauty of the people’s House is it is the people’s House. Every one of them have two-year terms and roughly the same number of constituents, and any discipline for the most part belongs with the people who elect them.”
Members of their party’s leadership agreed.
“I think the RNC should be focused on electing Republicans,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
“I think we’ve got a lot of issues we should be focused on instead of censuring two members of Congress because they have a different opinion,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said of the RNC resolution as she walked into Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office.
McConnell indicated he would address the matter Tuesday.
While most Republicans, especially those in leadership, are eager to turn the page on January 6, there appears to be more of an appetite in the House GOP conference to relitigate the deadly attack on the Capitol. Some of Trump’s staunchest Capitol Hill allies have floated the idea of launching investigations into conspiracy theories about the insurrection and creating their own select committee to rewrite the January 6 narrative if Republicans win back the House.
“We ought to capture the January 6 committee and convert it to our purposes: pursuing the extent to which federal involvement might have animated violence,” Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida told CNN, referring to the unfounded theory that the FBI was involved in the riots.
But GOP leaders, who have so far resisted calls inside the conference to punish Cheney and Kinzinger, say the party needs to keep its energy directed at defeating Democrats right now.
“My focus has been on what we need to do to take back the House,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise told CNN, when asked about the RNC censure resolution. “We need to flip a lot more seats that are currently held by Democrats, switching them to Republican, so we can fire (Speaker Nancy) Pelosi.”
Added Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, “We’re focused on winning the majority next fall.”
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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.