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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 BidenDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Trump campaign eyes election night party at his sold-out DC hotel Harris blasts GOP for confirming Amy Coney Barrett: 'We won't forget this' MORE, Senate Republicans desperate to save their majority are beginning to distance themselves from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE just weeks before Election Day.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote Democrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg MORE (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenant, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump leads Biden in Texas by 4 points: poll President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him Dallas Morning News poll shows Biden leading Trump in Texas MORE (R-Texas), have offered critical assessments of the administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade Biden seeks to close any path for Trump win in race's final days MORE (R-S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsHouse Judiciary Republicans mockingly tweet 'Happy Birthday' to Hillary Clinton after Barrett confirmation Barrett sworn in as Supreme Court justice by Thomas Roberts to administer judicial oath to Barrett Tuesday 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 TillisTrump campaign asks Supreme Court to halt North Carolina absentee ballot plan White House to host swearing-in event for Barrett on Monday night Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle 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 McSallyDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego 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 AyotteBottom line 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-N.H.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkThe 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 Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE (R-Ill.) — both lost their seats.

Others who distanced themselves from Trump, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrat announces 2022 bid for Ron Johnson's seat Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day MORE (R-Wis.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy 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 ErnstBiden to campaign in Iowa for first time since winning nomination The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden search for undecided voters in final stretch Biden seeks to close any path for Trump win in race's final days MORE (R-Iowa), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in 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.