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

Republicans are divided over whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ 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 ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing 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 Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least CBS News in talks to hire Flake: report 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 ManafortMnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote Mueller files status report highlighting cooperation by key witness Barr: It would be a crime for president to pardon someone in exchange for their silence MORE would have on midterm races.

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

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight 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 CollinsOvernight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Mnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote 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’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces Trump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 Progressive strategist says changing demographics will help Dems 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 PelosiVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' On The Money: Shutdown Day 25 | Dems reject White House invite for talks | Leaders nix recess with no deal | McConnell blocks second House Dem funding bill | IRS workers called back for tax-filing season | Senate bucks Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions 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 HunterWhat a year it’s been: A month-by-month look back at 2018's biggest stories Bipartisan lawmakers unveil bill to tighten some campaign rules California dreamin’ in the 2020 presidential race MORE (R-Calif.) that came two weeks after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsWhat a year it’s been: A month-by-month look back at 2018's biggest stories Trump vents frustration over wall funding, fueling uncertainty over shutdown GOP scrambles to prevent shutdown after right-wing insurrection 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 SchumerOvernight Health Care: Dem chair meets Trump health chief on drug prices | Trump officials sued over new Kentucky Medicaid work rules | Democrats vow to lift ban on federal funds for abortions We can’t tackle climate change if we ignore the main polluter — transportation Hoyer introducing legislation to block Trump from lifting sanctions on Russian companies 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 McCaskillThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government Ex-Sen. McCaskill joins NBC, MSNBC Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party 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) ManchinLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks The Hill's Morning Report — No new negotiations as shutdown hits 25 days 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 ThuneLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Mnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote 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.