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GOP lawmakers facing decision on whether to attend convention

Some GOP leaders urging lawmakers to stay away from Cleveland

Washington CNN  — 

A number of high-profile Republicans, fearful of a potential melee in Cleveland this summer, are considering skipping the Republican National Convention and campaigning back home instead.

With the presidential campaign hitting a fever pitch and Donald Trump warning about riots if he’s denied the nomination, some House and Senate Republicans tell CNN that it makes more sense to spend time with voters back home rather than be associated with the drama engulfing their party.

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But even some leading party stalwarts are planning to skip the convention.

Asked Tuesday if he’d attend the convention, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told CNN: “No.”

“Unlikely,” GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte said when asked if she’d be in Cleveland in the midst of her tough bid for a second term. “I’ve got a lot of work to do in New Hampshire, I have my own re-election and I’m going to be focusing on my voters in New Hampshire.”

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The decision underscores the dilemma confronting Republicans in being tied too closely to the top of the ticket – particularly incumbents from swing states worried that Trump’s divisive candidacy and Ted Cruz’s rigid brand of conservatism will doom their chances at keeping power in both chambers of Congress.

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Quietly, some officials in the highest rungs of Republican leadership are advising their rank-and-file members to stay away from Cleveland. One top GOP party leader, who asked not to be named so they could discuss internal thinking, told CNN privately that he has advised his colleagues to hold campaign rallies and town halls in their home states during the time of the July convention. A senior Senate GOP leadership aide echoed that sentiment.

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Publicly, some were clear that staying in Cleveland wasn’t in their best interest.

“I’m up for re-election,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who is weighing skipping the convention. “I’m more valuable outside of Cleveland than inside of Cleveland.”

Skipping a convention is often a way for moderate members of both parties to put some distance between themselves and a nominee who could alienate supporters in their districts.

But even some tea party-aligned conservatives are planning to stay home in 2016.

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Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said in an interview with CNN that after discussing his plans with about 20 other conservatives‎ in recent days, roughly half of them agreed with him and have decided not to attend the convention.

His reason: “Let the activists, let the people decide” who the nominee will be, rather than the politicians.

“I’ve decided not to go to Cleveland,” Mulvaney said. “I’m going to stay home and work.”

A senior House Republican leadership aide told CNN they are also hearing that several members are coming to their own conclusions that it’s better for their own election prospects to avoid the convention.

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“I think if you are in a competitive district that’s smart,” the aide said.

Those House Republicans facing tough contests have been working to frame their races on issues voters care about back home. And for months, they have tried to separate themselves from the ugly fight at the top of the ticket.

“It’s always been about fighting Washington and making sure it’s local,” the House Republican leadership aide told CNN, explaining those members plan to “stay home and do the same thing they’ve been doing for last year and a half – not being a part of whatever chaos comes out of Cleveland.”

The comments underscore the lingering divisions in the party as Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich battle in an increasingly ugly primary contest. Some Republicans plainly fear that a contested convention could lead to a bitter fight over who should lead their party heading into November. But others are just as worried that a Trump nomination could lead to furious protests, forcing vulnerable incumbents to defend their controversial standard bearer and his penchant for making off-color comments.

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“I don’t see any reason for any candidate to go to any convention, unless it’s in their home state,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide, who asked not be named. “Their time is better spent at home talking to voters.”

Of course, not all Republicans are heeding that advice. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who faces a tough battle for reelection, said he plans to go to Cleveland.

“I probably will go to the convention. I’ve gone to past conventions; I don’t think the voters will be surprised that I attended the Republican convention.”