GOP divided over midterm threat posed by Trump's legal travails

Republicans are divided over whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report Giuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry Giuliani associate Lev Parnas discussed Ukraine with Trump at private dinner: report MORE’s escalating legal problems pose a major threat to their Senate and House majorities in November.

The emerging consensus is that the House GOP is likely to bear the brunt of the damage as the party seeks to defend 25 seats carried by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Top diplomat said request for specific probes in Ukraine was 'contrary' to US policy Feehery: What Republicans must do to adapt to political realignment MORE in 2016, while Democrats need to flip 23 to capture the lower chamber.

But some Republicans say one legal issue in particular is shaping up to be a broader political challenge for the GOP: former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s claim that the president directed him to pay two women for their silence during the 2016 campaign.

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“For the base, the hardcore base, I don’t know that it matters that much, but it certainly swings independents and those who have second thoughts along the way. You got to think that,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (Ariz.), one of the president’s loudest GOP critics, said when asked what impact Cohen’s recent plea deal and the fraud conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPaul Manafort's former son-in-law sentenced to 9 years in prison for scamming Dustin Hoffman, others NSC official testified there was 'no doubt' Trump pushed quid pro quo Prosecutor says Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump as trial opens MORE would have on midterm races.

“This is serious,” added Flake, who’s retiring in early January.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Trump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition The Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment drama will dominate this week MORE (R-S.C.) warned, “It’s not helpful to Republicans.”

“It’s just one more narrative of people around the president doing bad things,” he said. “The economy is strong. We’ll have our side of the story. But I don’t think you have to be a political genius to understand stuff like that.”

Other Senate Republicans say it’s too early to know how Trump’s legal quandaries will affect Senate and House races.

“I’ve given up trying to predict what’s going to influence the midterm election because it seems to change with every day,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Senate panel clears controversial Trump court pick Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump MORE (R-Maine).

Independent political experts say Trump’s legal travails are likely to have more impact on the battle for the House, which is being fought in many districts that voted for Clinton.

Future control of the Senate will largely depend on 10 Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won. Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (R-Nev.) is the only Republican up for reelection in a state that voted for Clinton.

“It will be interesting in a swing state like Florida whether it has any measurable impact,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan analyst. “Trump supporters will believe whatever Trump tells them about Cohen, that he’s a bad lawyer. And a lot of voters don’t pay attention to this type of stuff.”

Duffy said that Trump’s legal problems could help House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate Siren song of impeachment lures Democrats toward election doom MORE (D-Calif.) boost Democratic turnout.

“She’s got to get those low-propensity voters out,” Duffy said. “If she can hammer home on this and make it work, that’s great [for Democrats].”

Pelosi this past week hammered Republicans for abetting what she calls “a culture of corruption” under Trump, citing the recent campaign finance charges against Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterIndicted lawmaker Duncan Hunter fails to land endorsement from local GOP Duncan Hunter challenger raises over 0,000 in third quarter Trump says White House reviewing case of Green Beret charged with Afghan murder MORE (R-Calif.) that came two weeks after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsOn The Money: Economy adds 136K jobs in September | Jobless rate at 50-year low | Treasury IG to probe handling of Trump tax returns request | House presses Zuckerberg to testify on digital currency Two Collins associates plead guilty in insider trading case On The Money: Trump blames Fed as manufacturing falters | US to join Trump lawsuit over NY subpoena for tax returns | Ex-Rep. Chris Collins pleads guilty in insider trading case MORE (R-N.Y.) was charged with insider trading. Both GOP lawmakers were Trump's earliest supporters on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDivided Supreme Court leans toward allowing Trump to end DACA Ilhan Omar blasts Pete King as an 'Islamophobe' after he announces retirement: 'Good riddance' Top Senate Dem: Officials timed immigration policy around 2020 election MORE (N.Y.) keeps hitting his talking points on what Trump has done to “sabotage” the Affordable Care Act and the rising cost of health care.

Duffy noted that Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Mo.), who is running in a state Trump won by 19 points, talks about Trump’s legal challenges a lot, but “it’s not the issue driving the race, I don’t think.” 

Senate Democratic candidates are running ads focused on protecting people with pre-existing conditions, the rising costs of pharmaceutical drugs and health care in general, a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinFormer coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (D-W.Va.), who has a tough race in a state Trump won by 42 points, says he’s highlighting health care on the campaign trail and not talking about special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s investigation into possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign in 2016.

“The whole emphasis is on West Virginia,” Manchin said. “We’ve got situations with pre-existing conditions — that is the No. 1, most important thing.”

He said news about Trump’s legal turmoil is “not a big thing back home.”

“It’s not been the biggest issues back home that I hear about,” he said last week at the Capitol. “Of course this is brand new, about Manafort and Cohen now that they have been convicted or have pleaded. We’ll see how it plays this week when I go home but I haven’t heard a whole lot.”

That’s the same sense many Senate Republicans have about the midterm races.

“Most of our candidates are running their own campaigns and talking about the issues that are important to the voters in their states and their districts,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report: Public impeachment hearings to begin next week MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership.

He said Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea add “another layer into the ether of all the other distractions that are out there.”

Senate Republicans discussed the political impact of the Manafort and Cohen news at a lunch meeting on Wednesday and no one in the room expressed serious alarm about what it would mean for keeping the GOP majority in the chamber, according to a senator who was present.

Instead, they questioned Cohen’s credibility, with one lawmaker urging his colleagues not to feed any press stories predicting that Manafort and Cohen would hurt the GOP’s political chances in the fall, according to the source.

One senator pointed to a recent Economist/YouGov poll that showed Democrats ahead of Republicans by only 4 points on the generic ballot.

The source said Mueller’s investigation is revving up the GOP base, which he said “is so pissed” and thinks “people have wanted to get Trump from the very beginning.”

Other polls, such as a recent CNN/SSRS survey, showed House Democrats leading Republicans by as many as 11 points on the generic ballot.

A second GOP senator said it was clear to many voters after months of press coverage that Manafort and Cohen would wind up convicted or in plea deals.

The source said Manafort and Cohen have already been “baked in” to the political equation of 2018, and predicted the latest legal developments would have minimal impact.