Republicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump

Senate Republicans who are up for reelection next year are sticking as close to President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE as possible, especially on his signature issue of illegal immigration and border security.

Even as some Senate Republicans broke with Trump over his emergency declaration to build a wall on the Mexican border, most of those running for reelection next year backed Trump — a sign of their fear of Trump-fueled primary opponents.

Only one of the 12 Republicans who voted on Thursday for a Democratic-backed resolution overturning Trump’s emergency declaration is up for reelection next year: Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (R), who has a well-established reputation in Maine as an independent.

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans running in other swing states who arguably might have benefited from distancing themselves from Trump, such as Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary MORE (Colo.), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Political establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme MORE (Ariz.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Poll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate MORE (N.C.), stuck with him.

The tone was set early by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.).

The GOP leader, who is up for reelection, endorsed Trump’s national emergency declaration last month despite initially warning Trump against the move, according a Feb. 1 Washington Post report. 

GOP strategists said Republicans have little choice given the potency of the issue of border security with Trump’s base.

“I think what they’ve seen is the Republican base has been energized by the issue the last couple years and it’s not going away,” said Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist. 

“This issue has really become a defining issue as you go into the next election cycle,” he added. “Donald Trump uses his bully pulpit very well, and he’s brought a lot of energy and focus on this issue, and they know he’s not going to stop talking about it.” 

The Senate also delivered a rebuke to Trump on Wednesday when seven Republicans voted to pass a resolution requiring the president to withdraw U.S. military support from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. 

Only two of the defectors in that vote are up for reelection next year: Collins and Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesPolitical establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme Lincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night MORE (R-Mont.).

The issue of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, however, has less salience with the GOP base than Trump’s promises to build a border wall. 

A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 70 percent of Republicans said they would be more likely to vote for a senator or representative who supports Trump’s national emergency declaration. 

“The reason why you had Gardner and Tillis do this is because they knew that the process/principle argument wasn’t going to fly with the Republican base when this is their No. 1 issue. They want execution, and they don’t care how you get it,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. 

O’Connell said Gardner and Tillis, who have two of the most competitive races next year, need to worry about fending off primary challenges and turning out conservative voters in the election, when Democratic turnout is expected to be high. 

“Even though they want to fend off primary challenges, this is also a situation where, in the general election, if they cross Trump on this issue, Trump could win their state and they could still lose,” he added. “In a lot of these races, it’s going to be two-point races, whether it’s Gardner or it’s Tillis.

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Beijing: US 'oppressing Chinese companies' after Huawei, ZTE action Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties MORE (R-Neb.) is in a slightly different position.

He’s not expected to face a difficult general election, but his repeated criticism of Trump’s conduct and policies has sparked talk of a possible primary challenge — if Sasse decides to run for another term. He said he will announce his decision this summer. 

“Obviously Sasse is more concerned about a primary challenge,” O’Connell said, noting that Trump won Nebraska by 20 points in 2016. Sasse describes himself as a “constitutional conservative” and warned in a statement to National Review magazine in February that Trump’s emergency border declaration undermined the Constitution’s separation of powers.  

He was seen as a likely vote in favor of the disapproval resolution, especially after several Senate GOP colleagues announced they would support it to preserve the Constitution’s separation of powers. 

Sasse announced Thursday that he voted no because he saw it is a “politically motivated resolution” crafted by Democrats to embarrass Trump. He also noted his support for legislation to require Congress to approve future national emergency declarations after 30 days. 

Trump emerged as a dominant force in Republican primaries in the 2018 midterm elections. Forty-nine of the 51 Republicans he endorsed in the 2018 primaries won their races, according to ABC News.   

Tillis reversed himself on supporting the disapproval resolution after coming under pressure from conservatives in North Carolina. 

He boldly voiced support for the resolution in a Feb. 25 Washington Post op-ed in which he warned that Trump’s use of the emergency declaration to secure more funding for border barriers would set a dangerous precedent that future Democratic presidents could exploit.

“Republicans need to realize that this will lead inevitably to regret when a Democrat once again controls the White House,” he wrote. 

But Tillis came under withering criticism from conservatives at home, such as Diane Parnell, the chairwoman of the Rockingham County Republican Party, who urged conservative Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerPence confidant helps 24-year-old beat Trump-backed candidate Rubio to introduce bill allowing NCAA athletes to make money from name, likeness Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard MORE (R-N.C.) to challenge Tillis in next year’s Senate primary. 

“Trump has an approval rate of well over 80 percent among Republicans. That makes GOP Senators fear the President and worry that crossing him will lead to a primary challenger,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. 

“It is hard to vote against the President on anything he has labeled a high priority. Doing that could lead to a Trump tweet that enrages the conservative base and creates problems for Republican lawmakers,” he added.  

The one exception to the trend is Collins, but GOP strategists say she’s in a different category.

“Susan Collins has her own brand,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican strategist and pollster. McLaughlin said polling he’s seen of Republican voters in Maine shows she has strong support despite being a well-known moderate. 

McLaughlin said Trump’s influence is more potent in Republican primaries where the person he endorses is running against someone without a well-defined brand. 

Trump’s scored a coup in last year’s Florida gubernatorial primary when his endorsement helped then-Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisMiami-Dade imposes curfew heading into 4th of July weekend US surpasses record 55,000 new cases of coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Experts fear July 4 weekend will exacerbate coronavirus spread | Texas Gov. Abbott will require masks in most of the state | Fauci warns: 'We are not going in the right direction' MORE (R-Fla.) overcome a 15-point deficit to defeat Adam Putnam and win the GOP nomination. 

“Ron DeSantis — nobody knew who the heck the guy was. He got a couple tweets from the president and an endorsement, and the guy went from being down [big] to winning by a margin of nearly 2-to-1,” he said, citing DeSantis’s 56.5-point-to-36.5-point victory.