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

Republicans are divided over whether President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic 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 things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries Clintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections 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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 ManafortLobbyist Tony Podesta returns to work for Huawei Former bank CEO convicted of bribery in scheme to land Trump admin job Trial begins for Chicago banker who exchanged loans with Manafort for Trump job MORE would have on midterm races.

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

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate 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 CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget 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 HellerDemocrat Jacky Rosen becomes 22nd senator to back bipartisan infrastructure deal 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 On The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Overnight Health Care: Average daily COVID infections topped last summer's peak, CDC says | US reaches 70 percent vaccination goal a month after Biden's target | White House says CDC can't renew eviction ban Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban 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 HunterTrump denies Gaetz asked him for blanket pardon Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP Trust, transparency, and tithing is not enough to sustain democracy MORE (R-Calif.) that came two weeks after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsOutrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout Trump denies Gaetz asked him for blanket pardon Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP 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 SchumerChuck SchumerPoll: Majority of voters say more police are needed amid rise in crime America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill 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 McCaskillGiuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri McCaskill shares new July 4 family tradition: Watching Capitol riot video Joe Manchin's secret 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 ManchinJoe ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection 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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate 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.