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 Biden, Senate Republicans desperate to save their majority are beginning to distance themselves from President Trump just weeks before Election Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenant, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), have offered critical assessments of the administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (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 Tillis (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 McSally (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 Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — both lost their seats.
Others who distanced themselves from Trump, including Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Pat Toomey (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 Ernst (R-Iowa), Cory Gardner (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.