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On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump

On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump
© Getty Images / Greg Nash

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge MORE (R-N.C.) hit the airwaves with his first television advertisement asking voters to give him another six years in office, he let President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE speak for him.

Tillis "has been a warrior ... really a warrior, when we needed him most," Trump said in footage from a rally in July. "Make sure he gets reelected."

In Georgia, Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsTrump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs McCarthy woos Freedom Caucus with eye on Speakership Georgia's Perdue, Kemp to appear with Fox News's Laura Ingraham MORE (R) castigated his Senate primary opponent, appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerLoeffler campaign staffer dies in car crash Trump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs Graham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign MORE (R), for sitting on the sidelines in 2016 after contributing almost $1 million to outside groups working on behalf of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Romney blasts Trump lack of leadership during pandemic: 'It's a great human tragedy' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal MORE. Loeffler's allies shot back, accusing Collins of putting Georgia's electoral votes — and Trump's presidency — on the line by jumping into the 2020 Senate race.

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And in Alabama, former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTime to bring federal employees home for every holiday Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 MORE, the first major congressional Republican to back Trump in 2016, is facing off against a prominent primary rival who invoked God when speaking of the president. 

"I say it with all of my heart, God sent us Donald Trump, because God knew we were in trouble," former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville said in a radio spot that hit stations last month. 

Across the country, GOP Senate candidates are almost obsessively focused on Trump, a sign of his sky-high popularity among Republican voters. Their absolute devotion to Trump is a calculated risk: balancing the need to win over voters who will turn out to support the president, but who are not enamored of more traditional Republicans on the ballot, against the potential that Trump could become an unpopular albatross with centrists and independents. 

"It's Republican identity politics. For Republicans, Trump is 'our guy' — the one who gives voice to their anger and resentment," said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former top official at the Republican National Committee during the George H.W. Bush administration. "To side with Trump is to be strong and join the fight. To split with Trump is to show weakness, or worse, to side with the enemy on the other side of the field."

The candidates tying themselves so closely to the president are running in both deeply Republican states and in swing states that shade toward Democrats. 

In Kansas, a state Trump carried by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, the three leading Republicans vying to replace retiring Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsTrump's controversial Fed nominee stalled after Senate setback Business groups scramble to forge ties amid race for House Agriculture chair Republicans hold on to competitive Kansas House seat MORE (R) spent a recent debate invoking Trump's name as often as possible.

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Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who served on Trump's transition team, touted his influence over the president’s hard-line stance on immigration. Rep. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallThe Hill's Morning Report - Too close to call Marshall wins Kansas Senate race Live updates: Democrats fight to take control of the Senate MORE said he had spoken with Trump by phone after a recent Fox News appearance. State Sen. Susan Wagle pledged to "stand with President Trump."

In Colorado, a state Trump lost by 5 points, Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R) has shown no signs of distancing himself from the president. Gardner will attend a rally with Trump in Colorado Springs on Thursday, celebrating the administration's decision to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction. 

Trump on Wednesday rallied with another potentially vulnerable incumbent in a swing state, Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in Mark Kelly sworn in to Senate seat Sen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain's grave ahead of swearing-in MORE (R-Ariz.). Polls have shown McSally trailing Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D). 

Democrats are certain to tie their opponents to Trump in states where it suits them.

North Carolina Democrats gleefully forward polling that shows Tillis and Trump with higher unfavorable ratings than favorable ratings; Colorado Democrats have highlighted Trump's coming visit with Gardner; and in Maine, Democrats have repeatedly aired Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him MORE's (R) comments that Trump had learned a lesson from his impeachment trial, in which she voted to acquit. 

"Candidates who embrace Trump win the support of the primary electorate but jeopardize their chances in general elections," Pitney said. 

Republican strategists said the move to embrace Trump is a reflection of his command over their party's base voters — voters who see Trump as a welcome departure from broken promises of past GOP administrations.

"I look at it as a box to be checked. Every Republican candidate in a Republican state must make their loyalty to the president explicitly clear," said Brent Buchanan, a Republican pollster tracking the race in Alabama.

Trump's poll numbers among Republican voters, which he touts frequently on Twitter, mean there is little incentive and little room for GOP candidates to differentiate themselves. Two candidates who tried to do so in 2016, Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE (R-N.H.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-Ill.), lost their reelection bids.

"Clearly neither candidate can afford to be considered as someone who doesn’t support Trump and his agenda," said Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in Georgia who is unaffiliated in the Senate race. "There is no space to carve out as a moderate on Trump if you want to make the runoff. There aren’t enough votes on our side, assuming the Democrats coalesce behind one candidate."

Even in swing states, Republicans see an advantage to tying themselves to the president, especially if Democrats nominate a challenger like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks Sanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Progressives push for direct payments to be included in COVID-19 relief deal MORE (I-Vt.).

"With Sen. Tillis's opponents now vowing to support whoever the Democrats nominate for president, even Bernie Sanders, they have made clear that they are running on socialism. Sen. Tillis, on the other hand, is running on his record of partnering with President Trump on pro-growth policies that have our economy booming," said Andrew Romeo, Tillis's campaign spokesman.

It is clear that Trump, too, is paying attention. He recently tweeted a Kansas poll that showed Kobach and Marshall running neck and neck for the Republican nomination. He has hinted publicly that he may step in to mediate the rift between Loeffler and Collins in Georgia. And his embrace of Tillis helped convince a wealthy businessman, Garland Tucker, to drop a planned primary challenge. 

"President Trump has unprecedented popularity within the Republican Party and is also attracting the support of Democrats and Independents," said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman. "Where the president does well, all Republicans will do well."

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.