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Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length

PHOENIX — Facing increasingly grim poll numbers that show a widening advantage for Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE, Senate Republicans desperate to save their majority are beginning to distance themselves from President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE just weeks before Election Day.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenant, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPolitics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission MORE (R-Texas), have offered critical assessments of the administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report MORE (R-S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins urges Biden to revisit order on US-Canada border limits Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped MORE (R-Maine) broke with Trump last week over Trump’s decision — since reversed — to call off negotiations with House Democrats over a coronavirus relief package. Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE (R-N.C.) apologized for going maskless at a White House event where he and other senators contracted the coronavirus.

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At a debate here last week, Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyNew rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees The Seventeenth Amendment and the censure of Donald Trump Ex-astronaut Mark Kelly jokes about piloting congressional subway MORE (R-Ariz.) evaded repeatedly when asked whether she was proud of her support for Trump.

“I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes,” McSally said. Asked again, she repeated: “I’m proud to be fighting for Arizona every single day, putting legislation on President Trump’s desk. You look at the legislation we put on his desk, it’s to cut Arizonans’ taxes.”

Republican anxiety is reminiscent of the late stages of the 2016 election, when GOP incumbents raced to distance themselves from Trump after taped audio from "Access Hollywood" showed the then-celebrity businessman making obscene comments about sexually assaulting women.

But underscoring the risk that distancing oneself from a party’s presidential nominee carries, the two senators who condemned Trump most harshly — Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteOvernight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal 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.) — both lost their seats.

Others who distanced themselves from Trump, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Cruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director MORE (R-Wis.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyPhilly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote Toomey on Trump vote: 'His betrayal of the Constitution' required conviction MORE (R-Pa.), narrowly staved off Democratic challengers.

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But their election results showed the high-stakes risk each man took, and that incumbents this year are now attempting: They both won larger shares of the vote in suburban areas around Milwaukee and Philadelphia, respectively, while taking fewer votes than Trump out of more rural areas, where Trump’s support was stronger.

That is the tightrope incumbents face today: They must both placate Trump’s base, a substantial fraction of the Republican coalition, and the suburban moderates who are repelled by the president and comfortable with Biden.

As American politics becomes increasingly nationalized, fewer voters have showed a willingness to split tickets between one party’s presidential candidate and the other’s candidates for Senate or House seats. In 2016, for the first time since the direct election of senators began a century ago, every U.S. Senate contest broke the same way as the presidential contest in that state.

“What you do in these situations is you localize these races,” said Jai Chabria, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “But that’s a hard thing to do.”

Only a handful of politicians have managed to build an individual brand strong enough to overcome their state’s shifting political tides. But even this year, some of those incumbents — like Collins in Maine — are facing strong headwinds. And for others, it may be too late.

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“If you’re trying to disassociate yourself from the president and establish your own brand this late in the race, you’re probably in trouble,” said Ken Spain, a longtime Republican strategist who held senior positions at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That process needed to have begun months ago, if not years ago.”

“There are some Republican senators who have established their own brand in their home states. Because of that, they still have a chance of winning,” Spain said.

Republican pollsters are closely watching states that are both presidential and Senate battlegrounds, where Republican candidates are tracking closely with President Trump. Surveys released over the last week showed Tillis, McSally and Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstBill to shorten early voting period, end Election Day early in Iowa heads to governor's desk We know how Republicans will vote — but what do they believe? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by TikTok - Senate trial will have drama, but no surprise ending MORE (R-Iowa), Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R-Colo.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) all claiming slightly smaller shares of the vote than Trump in their home states.

Several Republican candidates have dared to suggest that Trump will lose and that a Republican Senate is the only bulwark against unchecked liberalism.

“This is going to decide the Senate majority, and if Biden, Schumer and Pelosi are in charge, they’re going to abolish the filibuster. They’re going to ram through the most radical agenda that we’ve seen,” McSally said.

Even Graham, who has refashioned himself as one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants, told voters that Trump may lose.

“If they keep the House, take over the Senate and Biden’s president, God help us all,” Graham said in a recent debate.