While heavily armed protesters who laid siege to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon touted their third day of occupation yesterday with a public news conference, presidential primary contenders remained notably quieter.
Members of the group, which dubbed itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom during a media conference yesterday, continued to hold an unoccupied federal building in the 188,000-acre refuge, where organizer Ammon Bundy had previously urged would-be vigilantes to take up arms against the federal government.
Following several days of silence from presidential candidates in both parties, a handful of GOP candidates yesterday urged Bundy's group to disband its protest peacefully.
The siege in eastern Oregon presents a dilemma for Republican leaders and officeholders -- many of whom share the protesters' disdain for federal environmental regulations and the agencies that enforce them. But Democrats -- some of whom see a double standard in the way a group of white demonstrators are portrayed in the media compared to minority groups and their supporters who have vocally protested police brutality in recent months -- also face risks, if they are seen as overtly politicizing a potentially explosive incident.
That may explain why the few public officials who commented on the uprising did so in measured tones yesterday.
"Every one of us has a constitutional right to protest, to speak our minds," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading Republican presidential contender, told reporters in Iowa, according to NBC News. "But we don't have a constitutional right to use force and violence and to threaten force and violence against others. So it is our hope that the protesters there will stand down peaceably, that there will not be a violent confrontation."
Another GOP White House candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, offered similar sentiments in an interview with Iowa radio station KBUR. But in an apparent attempt to seek a balance with Republican voters who favor the transfer of federal lands to state control -- particularly in key Western states like Nevada and Colorado -- Rubio also reiterated his desire to see public lands under state control.
"You've got to follow the law. You can't be lawless. We live in a republic. There are ways to change the laws of this country and the policies. If we get frustrated with it, that's why we have elections. That's why we have people we can hold accountable," Rubio told the radio station.
But he later added: "I agree that there is too much federal control over land, especially out in the western part of the United States. There are states, for example, like Nevada that are dominated by the federal government in terms of landholding, and we should fix it, but no one should be doing it in a way that's outside the law."
Similarly, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP contender who met with Ammon Bundy's father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, during a similar standoff with federal officials last summer, told The Washington Post that he is "sympathetic" to the idea of turning over federal land to state ownership.
But Paul added: "I think the best way to bring about change is through politics. That's why I entered the electoral arena. I don't support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy."
A spokeswoman for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina noted that the GOP candidate has not commented publicly on the incident and declined a request to do so from E&E Daily.
The campaigns of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and business mogul Donald Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
Inquiries to the trio of Democratic presidential contenders -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley -- were also similarly unanswered.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged "restraint" in the federal response to the militant group while at the same time insisting the group "cannot continue breaking the law."
"I am very patient. We should all be very patient," Reid said at a Las Vegas news conference reported by the Las Vegas Sun. "But not for too long."
Although the militants in Oregon had vowed to defend their siege of the federal building with force if challenged by law enforcement, the group has also said it does not plan to hurt anyone.
Relative quiet from Congress
Reaction on Capitol Hill was outright muted yesterday.
Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee are expected to file a resolution of disapproval tomorrow, but details about the bill were not immediately available, a committee spokesman said.
A spokesman for Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the chairman had been traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Committee Democrats said it was not known whether Bishop would sign onto the resolution.
Similarly, in the Senate, a spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the lawmaker will not yet comment publicly on the incident.
But Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R), whose sprawling 2nd District includes the site of the ongoing dispute, called the incident "troubling" and said "if history is any gauge, no one comes out of situations like this a winner."
He added: "Law enforcement at all levels are working hard to keep everyone safe and resolve this peacefully. I'll continue to be in close touch with community leaders and law enforcement as we monitor this situation."
Walden, coincidentally, is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has relied in part on the energy and anger of conservative activists in recent years to put record numbers of Republicans in the House.
In a statement last night, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) sought to contrast the media portrayal of the militants who took over the federal building in Oregon with the coverage of demonstrators who have decried recent police killings of young African-Americans.
"At this moment, the media have a responsibility to avoid language that paints these armed militants in a positive light," Edwards said. "They are breaking the law. Moreover, the media do great injustice to our Constitution by equating that lawlessness with the legitimate exercise of Constitutional rights by unarmed citizens who have come together to peacefully protest an end to violence in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. One could not imagine a group of armed black men taking over an unoccupied federal building in one of our nation's cities as they have in Oregon. It is time to tell that tough truth."
Center for Western Priorities Advocacy Director Jessica Goad praised those lawmakers who condemned the takeover of federal property but questioned why candidates had not criticized the group's anti-government stance.
"At this tense moment, it's crucial that elected officials and those seeking office unite to make it clear they do not support the illegal actions of the Bundy family and their militant supporters," Goad said in a statement.
The CWP, which opposes efforts to shift control of public lands to states, authored a report in August that linked proponents of land transfer to extremist groups (E&ENews PM, Aug. 12, 2015).
"These issues of federal land management and the notion of turning public lands over to the state, that essentially functions as a dog whistle to right-wing extremist groups," Goad noted in an interview.
Goad asserted that some candidates may be hesitant to comment on the topic in an effort not to sway primary voters. Bush, for instance, vowed in a policy plan released last fall to make Western states "equal partners" with the federal government in overseeing millions of acres of public land (E&E Daily, Oct. 22, 2015).
"A lot of the folks running for office are highly aware of who the primary voters are on this front," Goad said.
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.