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 BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE, Senate Republicans desperate to save their majority are beginning to distance themselves from President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE just weeks before Election Day.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process on Wednesday | Four states emerge as test case for cutting off jobless benefits GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' McConnell presses for 'actual consequences' in disclosure of tax data MORE (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenant, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate passes bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday Harris calls for pathway to citizenship for Dreamers on DACA anniversary Senate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court MORE (R-Texas), have offered critical assessments of the administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Senate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema MORE (R-S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics as study finds them prevalent Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover 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 endorsement shakes up GOP Senate primary in NC Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Lara Trump lost her best opportunity — if she ever really wanted it MORE (R-N.C.) apologized for going maskless at a White House event where he and other senators contracted the coronavirus.


At a debate here last week, Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyMcGuire unveils Arizona Senate campaign On The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly welcome first grandchild 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 AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE (R-N.H.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) — both lost their seats.

Others who distanced themselves from Trump, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenate passes bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday Jon Stewart: Coronavirus 'more than likely caused by science' Hillicon Valley: House targets tech giants with antitrust bills | Oversight chair presses JBS over payment to hackers | Trump spokesman to join tech company | YouTube suspends GOP senator MORE (R-Wis.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.), narrowly staved off Democratic challengers.


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.


“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 ErnstOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US 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.