Anomaly or Omen? A House Republican Tells Voters He ‘Stood Up’ to Trump

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WASHINGTON — A low-profile Republican congressman from northeast Ohio has gone where few in his party have dared this campaign season: He has bragged to his constituents that he has stood up to President Trump.

In an election year when many Republicans have slavishly courted the president’s validation and endorsement, and others have been reluctant, even afraid, to criticize him, Representative David Joyce has gingerly risked Trumpian wrath.

“I’ll do what’s right for northeastern Ohio even if it means standing up to my own party,” Mr. Joyce said in an advertisement. Then another message appears on the screen: “Dave Joyce Stood Up to President Trump.”

His defiance was not all that drastic: The congressman said he moved to protect Lake Erie and the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which the Trump administration had tried to kill. The ad is nowhere to be found on his website or on YouTube.

His Democratic opponent, Betsy Rader, was unimpressed. “He’s running away from his record,” she said. “I believe that he’s voted with Trump 96.7 percent of the time. And I actually decided to run for Congress because of his commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

“This has been his history in Congress,” she said. “He’s talked out of both sides of his mouth. Now he’s trying to flip.”

But it is a small crack in Mr. Trump’s wall of support, which has pushed brasher presidential critics in the party, like Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, to retirement.

“For a guy like that, it’s the only move and the right move,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican media strategist. “You’ve got to have a local identity. What you want to do is not let your congressional district be a proxy war for the ‘love Trump-hate Trump’ thing.”

Mr. Joyce, who was first elected in 2012, represents a district rated as “likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report. It extends from the affluent suburbs east and south of Cleveland to more working-class Ashtabula, much of it on the shores of Lake Erie — the kind of district Republicans are expected to have the most difficulty winning, largely because of the number of college-educated women who do not support Mr. Trump.

He succeeded Steven C. LaTourette, a Republican who tried to steer his party toward more moderate policies, and Mr. Joyce has a more conservative record than his predecessor.

Ms. Rader, a civil rights lawyer and Yale Law School graduate, is making health care a centerpiece of a campaign that is also trying to portray Mr. Joyce as a creature of Washington, out of touch with his constituents.

Mr. Joyce’s opposition to a Trump policy, even a low-profile one like the Great Lakes initiative, could be seen as a defense to that attack.

“I’m more curious to see whether this is a start of a trend among endangered House Republicans, to try to show just a little bit of space between them and an unpopular president,” said John Weaver, a critic of the president and a political adviser to Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a Republican. “In this case, I am not sure it’s strong enough, but I find it interesting.”

The risk for Mr. Joyce is that he alienates fervent supporters of Mr. Trump in his district in his effort to win over more moderate voters. Mr. Joyce’s office did not return several phone calls and emails seeking comment.

“It’s part of the large disease in the Republican Party, to treat our base voters like swing voters,” Mr. Murphy said. “The biggest myth is that base voters won’t turn out. The base always turns out. That’s why we call them the base.”

“A lot more guys in tough districts ought to be distancing themselves,” Mr. Murphy said. “Not ‘hate Trump,’ but ‘look, when it comes to Lake Erie, I will stand up.’ It’s so counter to the ‘love Trump 24/7’ fear orthodoxy.”

Mr. Weaver also noted that Mr. Joyce did not challenge the president on more charged issues like the Russia investigation, trade or the relationship between the United States and its allies.

“But it’s striking,” Mr. Weaver said. “I am not sure how effective it will be in a tidal wave. I don’t know if it shows courage. In Washington, the first rule is that the first interest is self-interest.”

Mr. Trump won almost 54 percent of the vote in the district in 2016, slightly above the 51 percent he claimed statewide in Ohio. Mr. Joyce won his race that year by 25 percentage points.

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