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

Republicans are divided over whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff urges GOP colleagues to share private concerns about Trump publicly US-China trade talks draw criticism for lack of women in pictures Overnight Defense: Trump to leave 200 troops in Syria | Trump, Kim plan one-on-one meeting | Pentagon asks DHS to justify moving funds for border wall 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 ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump pushes to speed up 5G rollout | Judge hits Roger Stone with full gag order | Google ends forced arbitration | Advertisers leave YouTube after report on pedophile ring 4 ways Hillary looms over the 2020 race Hillary Clinton met with Biden, Klobuchar to talk 2020: report 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.

ADVERTISEMENT
“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 FlakePoll: 33% of Kentucky voters approve of McConnell Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union 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 ManafortWhite House braces for Mueller report Hillicon Valley: Trump pushes to speed up 5G rollout | Judge hits Roger Stone with full gag order | Google ends forced arbitration | Advertisers leave YouTube after report on pedophile ring Manafort to be sentenced for bank, tax fraud in Virginia on March 8 MORE would have on midterm races.

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

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamActing Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange Five takeaways from McCabe’s allegations against Trump FBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it 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 CollinsOn The Money: Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump emergency declaration | Banks made billion in extra profits thanks to GOP tax law | IRS analyst charged with leaking Cohen's financial records Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump's emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report - What to watch for as Mueller’s probe winds down 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 HellerTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOn The Money: Senate Dems to introduce resolution blocking Trump emergency declaration | Banks made billion in extra profits thanks to GOP tax law | IRS analyst charged with leaking Cohen's financial records Coast Guard lieutenant accused of planning domestic terrorism denied bail Inviting Kim Jong Un to Washington 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 HunterThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for House Dems unveil initial GOP targets in 2020 MORE (R-Calif.) that came two weeks after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for Fighting AIDS domestically and globally means pushing more evidence-based services 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 SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration 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 McCaskillPoll: 33% of Kentucky voters approve of McConnell McCaskill: Lindsey Graham 'has lost his mind' Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor 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) ManchinOvernight Energy: Trump ends talks with California on car emissions | Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal | Climate PAC backing Inslee in possible 2020 run Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal Gabbard cites ‘concerns’ about ‘vagueness’ of Green New Deal 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 Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall 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.