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Republicans increasingly seek distance from Trump

More and more Republicans are running for the lifeboats.

With President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE sinking in the polls less than three weeks before the November elections, a growing number of GOP lawmakers are scrambling to distance themselves from their party's embattled standard-bearer — a shift that’s both illuminated Trump’s tumultuous tenure in the White House and driven cracks in the GOP's united front at a particularly inconvenient moment for the unpopular president.

For vulnerable Republicans at risk of losing seats, the detachment appears designed to attract independent and moderate GOP voters who have soured on Trump after four years in office. Others seem to have written the president off and are now burnishing images of political independence in preparation for a Trump-less Washington.

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“It’s about survival for some. For others, it’s about positioning for the post-Trump world,” said one former Republican lawmaker, who estimated there was only a “5-to-10 percent chance” of Trump winning a second term.

National polls show Joe BidenJoe Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin MORE leading Trump by an average of nearly 9 percentage points, and Biden is also ahead in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — critical states that Trump carried four years ago.

In fact, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill StepienBill StepienTrump adds veteran organizer to help run political operations: report Trump likely to form new super PAC Trump ready to make McConnell's life miserable MORE, has been “darkly pessimistic” in private conversations, leaving campaign staffers with the impression that Trump will lose the White House, Axios reported

The fissures are also showing on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Graham quips key to working with Trump: We both 'like him' Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, acknowledged this week that the White House might for the Democrats' taking. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory Graham quips key to working with Trump: We both 'like him' MORE (R-Ky.) is refusing to consider a massive emergency stimulus bill favored by the president. 

And Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseGOP senators applaud Biden for global vaccine donation plans Pence: Trump and I may never 'see eye to eye' on events of Jan. 6 White House: Biden will not appoint presidential Jan. 6 commission MORE (R-Neb.), who occupies a safe red seat, issued a searing rebuke, telling Nebraska voters that Trump has used the White House for profiteering, cozied up to white supremacists and botched the federal response to the coronavirus at the expense of thousands of American lives.

“He refused to treat it seriously. For months, he treated it like a news-cycle-by-news-cycle P.R. crisis,” Sasse said on a conference call with 17,000 constituents, the audio of which was leaked to The Washington Examiner. “I’m now looking at the possibility of a Republican bloodbath in the Senate, and that’s why I’ve never been on the Trump train.” 

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The criticisms are spilling far beyond the Capitol.

On Thursday, Massachusetts GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, who has clashed with Trump over his coronavirus response, announced that he "cannot" vote for the president next month. On Friday, another Republican governor, Maryland's Larry Hogan, said he'd cast his ballot in favor of a write-in candidate: the late Ronald Reagan, remembered for his hopeful vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill.”

The changing tone marks a risky shift for the GOP. Trump remains widely popular with the party's conservative base, and any signs of abandoning the president in the final campaign stretch could imperil vulnerable down-ballot Republicans, particularly in the Senate, where McConnell is fighting to maintain his slim majority.

Yet with top Republicans openly warning of a GOP massacre on Nov. 3, many are arguing that endangered Republicans need to do what they can to divorce themselves from Trump and preserve their last line of defense: the GOP’s fragile Senate majority.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyDemocrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal McGuire unveils Arizona Senate campaign On The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP MORE (R-Ariz.) voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial earlier this year but repeatedly refused to say during a recent debate with Democratic challenger Mark Kelly whether she was proud of her consistent support of the president. 

One of McConnell’s deputies, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBlack lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory The Senate is where dreams go to die Federal government to observe Juneteenth holiday on Friday MORE (R-Texas), facing a challenge from Democrat MJ Hegar, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that Trump “let his guard down” in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and “he got out over his skis” by saying the danger had passed. 

And Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans White House reiterates opposition to raising gas tax amid infrastructure debate MORE (R-Maine), trailing Democrat Sara Gideon in the polls, has signaled she won’t vote to confirm Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Supreme Court unanimously sides with Catholic adoption agency that turned away same-sex couples MORE, so close to Election Day. 

On Friday, Trump pushed back against Collins in characteristically gruff fashion, highlighting the perils facing Republicans who break publicly with the president — and risk alienating the conservative GOP base which still adores him. 

“There is a nasty rumor out there that @SenatorCollins of Maine will not be supporting our great United States Supreme Court Nominee. Well, she didn’t support Healthcare or my opening up 5000 square miles of Ocean to Maine, so why should this be any different,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Not worth the work!”

Publicly, the president has expressed confidence that he’ll win a second term, rejecting unfavorable polls and any suggestion that Biden might have an advantage in the last leg of the campaign.

“We’re building our country stronger and better than it’s ever been before and that’s what’s happening and everybody knows it,” Trump told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie at a town hall in Miami, Fla., on Thursday night. “We’re winning in a lot of states. We’re winning in a lot of states. … I really feel we’re going to win.”

Other Republicans, in unguarded moments, suggest they're bracing for a Democratic victory.

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"Y'all have a good chance of winning the White House," Graham told Democrats on the Judiciary Committee this week.

A former GOP lawmaker who is predicting a Biden victory said it may be a case of “too little, too late” for the at-risk Republicans who are now spurning the president. 

“It’s a little late for them to be distancing themselves from Trump. Many Republican members needed to be distancing themselves over the past four years,” the GOP lawmaker said. “It might not have much impact now over the next two to three weeks. 

“The cake has been baked. The die has been cast. The narrative has been written.”