By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on March 13, 2018
Rep. Claudia Tenney (R) is embracing President Trump’s confrontational style as she seeks to hold on to a hotly contested New York district considered a toss-up race in this fall’s midterm elections.
While insisting that she is not tied to the president, the freshman lawmaker at times sounds like a mini-Trump.
She’s declared war on the “twist and smear” media, which she blamed last month for not talking about how many people who commit mass murders end up being Democrats.
“I call it twist and smear — that’s what the media tends to do,” said Tenney, who ran the newspaper division of Mid-York Press, Inc., her family’s commercial printing and manufacturing firm.
“Some are better than others,” Tenney added. “I do think the single biggest destructive force in our country is the media. We’ve lost our way.”
Tenney echoes Trump’s talking points on immigration and jobs — a strategy that seems smart in her district, which Trump won by 16 points.
She’s also pretty tough on Democrats, sounding almost Trumpian in her remarks.
“They don’t love our country,” Tenney said of the minority party during a CNN interview last month about the president’s State of the Union address. “I thought it was terrible that they didn’t clap for very American ideas, and why? Why not? They’re just about ‘resist,’ and what does ‘resist’ mean? Obstruct.”
The makeup of Tenney’s district has created fertile ground for Trump’s populist mix.
The district is 91 percent white, with a college graduation rate of 24 percent. While Trump cruised to victory here over Hillary Clinton, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried it by less than 1 percentage point in 2012.
Chris Grant, a GOP consultant and head of Big Dog Strategies, described Tenney as “Trump before Trump.”
“The environment will be different in each race, but Tenney has done a smart job of delivering for constituents on local issues, and standing with the President when it helps her district,” Grant said. “That’s pretty smart politics from where I sit.”
Remington Arms, a firearms and ammunition manufacturer located in the district, has laid off more than 100 employees, while General Electric has significantly scaled back its operations in the region over the years.
“He’s popular in my district,” Tenney says of Trump, noting people stood in line for hours to see him when he visited the area before the New York presidential primaries.
“There are times when he makes me cringe,” she added, “but he’s not a politician. He is very instinctual; he’s very earnest.”
In a 30-minute, wide-ranging interview outside the House chamber, she insisted she is standing for her community and not Trump, though she adds that “many of the things that Trump stands for are issues that are consistent with why he won by such a large margin in our district.”
The Cook Political Report casts Tenney’s race as a toss-up.
She’s been out-fundraised by Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, whom Tenney has tied to “San Francisco liberal” Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader.
And her brash style has also landed her in hot water at times — including when she linked Democrats to mass murders in remarks about last month’s high school shooting in Florida.
Tenney, 57, told a radio host that “many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats, but the media doesn’t talk about that either.”
Pressed by The Hill about the comments, Tenney initially rebuffed the question and said the issue has been asked and answered “a thousand times.”
But she then took several minutes to clarify the remarks, saying she was merely pointing out that mass shootings are not all Republicans’ fault — and she also snuck in a few jabs at the media as part of her line of defense.
“This is where I call it ‘twist and smear.’ They slandered me,” Tenney said. “Trust me, if [the Orlando nightclub shooter] had been a registered Republican, it would have been front page, top of the line, everywhere.”
It’s not just Trump’s style where Tenney mirrors the president; she has also taken a slew of policy positions that are in lockstep with the White House.
On immigration, she has labeled the Trump administration’s proposed solution to an Obama-era immigration program “generous” and “reasonable,” while calling a more moderate approach from some Senate Republicans “crazy.”
She’s also one of 13 House Republicans who called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate Clinton, still a frequent Trump target.
When it comes to taxes, Tenney says the tax-cut bill has been a big boon to her district, and she credited the law with already bringing some jobs back to the area.
But Tenney made clear she doesn’t agree with the president on every issue, underscoring that the interests of her constituents may not always align with Trump.
Tenney, a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is a staunch defender of the Second Amendment.
While Trump has expressed some openness to raising the age requirement to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, Tenney has expressed far more skepticism to the idea. She is also fiercely opposed to a ban on assault weapons, though Tenney supports strengthening background checks and requiring people to be trained on how to safely use weapons.
“Remington Arms was founded in my district. We have a strong tradition of people who use firearms,” Tenney said. “Have you used an AR-15? It’s the most commonly used rifle. I don’t consider that to be an assault rifle.”
Trump defied GOP orthodoxy last week when he slapped steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, infuriating members of his own party.
Tenney admitted she has “mixed emotions” about the proposal, pointing out that she considers herself a free-trade Republican.
But she was not a vocal critic of the tariff plan and did not sign on to a Republican-led letter urging Trump to abandon the idea — perhaps a sign of the popularity of Trump’s position on trade in her district.
“Trump won in our district largely because of the trade issue and the trade imbalance,” Tenney said. “We’ve got to save our base and people that work in our communities.”