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

Republicans are divided over whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency 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's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV Keeping up with Michael Avenatti 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 FlakeThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Key GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Gillibrand: Kavanaugh accuser shouldn't participate in 'sham' 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 ManafortHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe Comey: Mueller may be in 'fourth quarter' of Russia probe Flynn sentencing move spurs questions about duration of Mueller probe MORE would have on midterm races.

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

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin Graham GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Collins: Kavanaugh accuser should 'reconsider,' testify on Monday Grassley willing to send staff to California to speak with Kavanaugh accuser 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 CollinsCollins: My office has gotten 'pretty ugly voicemails, threats' over Kavanaugh The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Budowsky: Kavanaugh and the rights of women 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 HellerElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls Trump to fundraise for Heller, Tarkanian in Nevada The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly 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 PelosiNancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’? Pelosi: GOP's 2019 agenda a 'nightmare' for working families, seniors Dem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ 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 HunterTrump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency Indicted GOP lawmaker to stay on ballot in New York this fall: report Hoyer lays out government reform blueprint MORE (R-Calif.) that came two weeks after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Indicted GOP lawmaker announces he'll continue campaigning 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 SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation 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 McCaskillMcCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Wyden says foreign hackers targeted personal accounts of senators, staffers Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls 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) ManchinThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world 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 ThuneWant to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches More Dems want focus on job creation than wage growth Google, Apple, Amazon execs to testify at Senate privacy hearing this month 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.