Senate Republicans are feeling high anxiety over President Trump’s aggressive response to nationwide civil unrest, which they fear is alienating middle-of-the-road voters who are crucial to keeping their majority after Nov. 3.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared at the beginning of the election cycle that winning over college graduates and women in the suburbs would be key to retaining the Senate majority in 2020.

With the election five months away, Senate Republicans worry that Trump is blowing up that strategy with his laser-like focus on his base instead of swing voters.

“The last week and a half has certainly raised the level of angst over the politics of the presidential race and consequences on the Senate. I think it’s just kind of become one thing after another. Initially the handling of COVID and now this,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss conversations with GOP colleagues.

GOP senators were already nervous about keeping their majority because of the administration’s slow response to the coronavirus crisis and several Trump gaffes, including his advice that ingesting disinfectant could treat COVID-19.

“There are a lot of people in the middle that are looking for calmness,” said a second GOP senator who asked for anonymity to voice concerns about Trump’s recent performance. “It’s the tone and the words he’s using that I think might harm us back home.”

The first GOP lawmaker said concerns about Trump’s performance are never raised in conference-wide meetings but that senators do talk about it in one-on-one conversations.

“The things that have happened in the past week seems like they’ve really captured not just people’s attention but their emotion, their sense of wellbeing,” added the senator, who also noted an opinion piece this week by the conservative writer George Will.

Will, a Washington Post columnist, wrote that Trump “must be removed” and “voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Thursday sharply rebuked the president by praising an excoriating critique of his leadership by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as “true and honest and necessary and overdue.”

She suggested it might give other Republicans courage to break with the president and call out his controversial behavior. 

“Perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns we might hold internally and have the courage of our convictions to speak up,” she said.  

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) acknowledged there is anxiety about the upcoming election among fellow Republican senators.

“Any type of major crises like these probably never create great opportunities for incumbents,” he said of the coronavirus pandemic and the wave of protests and riots.

“There’s a lot of anxiety as people get closer to an election. It’s an election where the numbers don’t add up great for Republicans,” he said, noting that Senate Republicans have to defend 23 seats while Democrats only have to protect 12.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll of 1,113 adults conducted Monday and Tuesday showed that 55 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests while independents also voiced majority disapproval of his response.

But Cramer said it’s not likely that Trump is going to change his style between now and the election.

“It’s hard to not be who you are. He’s being who he is. It’s got him there, it’s what got him to this point,” he said. “He has defied [polls] historically.”

State battleground polls are showing some alarming developments for Republicans.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Trump in a statistical tie with former Vice President Joe Biden, barely leading the presumptive Democratic nominee 44 percent to 43 percent, within the survey’s 2.9 percentage point margin of error.

That’s certain to capture the attention of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) who is up for reelection to a fourth term.

Three Fox News polls released Wednesday also showed Trump trailing Biden in Ohio, Wisconsin and Arizona, where Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) now faces an uphill battle to reelection.

Trump caught a big break on Friday, however, when the Labor Department reported the economy unexpectedly created 2.5 million jobs in May, the biggest one-month job increase in recent U.S. history.

The president called it “a stupendous number” and a “joyous” development.

Trump seems convinced that the key to winning in November is to rev up and mobilize the base and that whichever party does the best job turning out its voters will win. During a recent lunch meeting with Senate Republicans he touted polling showing that Republican voters are more enthusiastic about voting for him than Democrats are voting for Biden.

But McConnell last year identified swing voters, particularly college graduates and women, in the suburbs as the key to extending the GOP majority into 2021.

McConnell said last year that Republicans lost control of the House in the 2018 midterm election because “we got crushed in the suburbs.”

“We lost college graduates and women in the suburbs, which led in the House to loses in suburban Kansas City; Oklahoma City; Houston; Dallas; Atlanta; Charleston, South Carolina,” the GOP leader said. “We’re determined not to lose women, certainly not by 19 points, and college graduates in our Senate races. And I don’t think we will.”

Some Republican senators are worried that if Trump doesn’t rein in his tendency to lash out on Twitter and other informal remarks, they may see a reprise of the 2018 blue wave but in Senate races.

The president’s warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” his threat to unleash “vicious dogs” on anyone who trespasses onto White House grounds, his forcible removal of peaceful protesters in order to pose with a bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church may stoke Trump’s core supporters but they’re alienating independents, GOP senators warn.

Republican senators in recent weeks say publicly and privately that Trump needs to help heal the nation and complain that some of his actions are doing the opposite.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) on Monday said Trump’s tweets were “not helpful” and urged “it’s important to respond in a calm way.”

“He needs to strike a tone I think that fits the level of frustration the country is experiencing right now and I hope in the future he’ll do that,” he told reporters.

About two hours after Thune made that statement, Trump participated in a photo-op that ratcheted up tensions even further after U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops used tear gas to disperse a peaceful crowd assembled in front of the White House.

That prompted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is in a toss-up race for reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, to rebuke the president’s actions as “unsympathetic” and “insensitive.”

“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once,” she said.

Other GOP senators were also shocked but kept their reactions to themselves.

One Republican senator described colleagues as “aghast.”

“Why does the president insist on self-inflicted wounds?” the lawmaker asked. 

 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump George Floyd protests Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Kevin Cramer Lisa Murkowski Martha McSally Mitch McConnell presidential election senate elections Susan Collins Unemployment

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more

Video

See all Video