Trump warnings on lawlessness divide GOP candidates

Senate Republicans running for reelection are divided over whether to embrace President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE’s aggressive tactics toward Black Lives Matter protesters and his dire warnings of lawlessness under a possible Biden administration.

Some Republicans in competitive races have run ads mimicking Trump’s message on law and order, but others are steering clear of the divisive subject, which political experts say could backfire on Trump.

In states where Trump’s approval rating is underwater, vulnerable Republicans are looking for other ways to draw a contrast with their Democratic opponents.

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In Maine, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsClub for Growth to spend million in ads for Trump Supreme Court nominee Maryland's GOP governor says Republicans shouldn't rush SCOTUS vote before election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE (R) has a television ad hitting Democratic opponent Sara Gideon on taxes. The ad highlights Gideon’s record voting for property taxes as a member of the Freeport Town Council, before she became Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, and accuses her family business of missing 77 tax payments.

Groups allied with Collins, such as the Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, are going after Gideon on other economic issues.

Collins, who prominently criticized Trump in June for the rough treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the White House, has stayed away from the president’s rhetoric warning of chaos if Democrats win in November.

She said it was “painful to watch” U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops use chemical irritants on protesters near Lafayette Square so Trump could pose in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church with a Bible. 

Political observers say that adopting Trump’s strategy toward the Black Lives Matter movement is a risky move that could hurt GOP candidates, especially especially those in states where Trump is unpopular.

“There’s no massive uprising of extreme radicals. It’s for the most part peaceful protests and some clashes with counter protests. And so the real danger is that in the meantime it spurs more real conflict than would otherwise occur,” Steven A. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said of Trump’s rhetoric.

Smith said the president’s effort to shift the national debate toward law and order and police funding aims to compensate for the difficulty of defending his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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An ABC News-Ipsos poll conducted late last week found that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.

Trump on Tuesday is planning to deliver his law-and-order message in Kenosha, Wis., where a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back on Aug. 23, leading to protests against racial injustice that at times turned violent. Three days after the shooting, two individuals were killed during a night of demonstrations. Trump has since defended the alleged gunman, saying he acted in self-defense.

Some Senate Republicans up for reelection have embraced Trump’s aggressive rhetoric. 

In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFEC flags McConnell campaign over suspected accounting errors Poll: 59 percent think president elected in November should name next Supreme Court justice Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' MORE (R) has run an ad that attacks Democratic challenger Amy McGrath for defending Black Lives Matter protests as “peaceful” while showing montages of property destruction and violence from recent events.

In Montana, Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesTrump seeks to turn around campaign with Supreme Court fight McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Will Republicans' rank hypocrisy hinder their rush to replace Ginsburg? MORE (R) aired an ad featuring a county sheriff in a cowboy hat criticizing Democratic challenger Steve BullockSteve BullockMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Pence seeks to boost Daines in critical Montana Senate race MORE, the state's governor, for not condemning the protests and being “with the liberal mob.”

GOP candidates in states where Trump has higher approval ratings appear more comfortable making the president’s message part of their own.

Trump is running 16 percentage points ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE in Kentucky and 9 points ahead of him in Montana, according to an average of polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com. 

Trump won Kentucky and Montana four years ago by 30 points and 20 points, respectively.

Smith said that many suburban voters, a key swing bloc, view the Black Lives Matter movement sympathetically.

“That’s something that’s resonating with fairly well-educated whites in both urban and suburban areas,” he said.

Smith said the current political context is much different than it was in 1968 when Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president, made law-and-order a principle campaign theme.

“Today, it’s paper thin. The events that are stimulating this are not nearly of the magnitude of the 1960s,” he said of this year’s racial injustice protests compared to the anti-war and civil rights protests of the late 1960s.

In Arizona, Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' New ABC/WaPost poll finds Trump edging Biden in Arizona, Florida MORE (R) has consistently attacked her opponent’s record as a businessman, recently accusing Democrat Mark Kelly in an attack ad of being “a slick salesman.” 

While McSally has adopted much of Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign and stuck close to him on many issues, she has not embraced what some media commentators have described as his “dark” rhetoric on the danger of chaos and lawlessness if Democrats win control of both the White House and Congress.

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Trump warned at his convention speech last week that “no one will be safe in Biden’s America” and that “if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments all across America.”

In Arizona, however, that message isn’t resonating, said Thomas Volgy, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona. 

“None of that has been playing over here,” he said. “After a while, people begin to say, ‘Isn’t this on Trump’s watch?’”

“In places, like Arizona, where protests have been incredibly peaceful, it’s not going to play at all,” Volgy added. “Senate candidates are really worried this is going to backfire on them.”

Like Collins, McSally has gone after her challenger on economic issues.

McSally tweeted on Aug. 18 that “Mark Kelly & Joe Biden want to raise taxes on hardworking Arizonans and defund the police.”

The attack was rated “false” by PolitiFact, which pointed out that Kelly, the son of two cops, has said, “I do not agree that we should defund the police or defund police departments.” 

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Volgy said Trump is making a risky move by highlighting “anarchy and mayhem” in American cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis because he’s raising the profile of problems that have flared up during his time in office.

“A race like this is all about the status quo. If you’re happy with the status quo, then incumbents win. Trump is taking an enormous gamble by saying the status quo is horrible and I’ll change it next time around. It sounds like the Senate candidates who are part of the status quo are trying to look at other issues,” he said.

Biden and other Democrats have sought to flip Trump's script by accusing him of exacerbating societal tensions.

"Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?" Biden asked at a campaign event in Pittsburgh on Monday, citing rising homicide rates.

"If I were president today, the country would be safer," he said. "And we'd be seeing a lot less violence."

In Iowa, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Liberal super PAC launches ads targeting vulnerable GOP senators over SCOTUS fight Romney backs pre-election Supreme Court vote, paving way for McConnell, Trump MORE (R) is emphasizing local issues while allied GOP groups have hit her opponent, Democrat Theresa Greenfield, on health care reform and small-business issues.

Gary Grant, a Republican consultant based in Iowa, said Trump’s focus on attacking Democrats on police funding and outbreaks of violence and property destruction at some rallies isn’t getting much traction in local races. 

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“I don’t know that it’s a theme that’s been embraced by a lot of candidates here,” he said.

Grant said Ernst “is running on more local issues like the economy, renewable fuel standards, her record in the Senate.”

He said when candidates try to “nationalize” races, they can find it “harder to connect with voters,” adding that Democrats are “absolutely” trying to nationalize the race by making it a referendum on Trump. 

A Democratic strategist based in Washington said Democrats running for Senate across the country have by and large pushed a unified message of attacking Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, pushing their proposals for expanded health care coverage and other reforms.

“The health care message has been very consistent from the Democratic side up and down the ticket, holding Republicans accountable for their records on this,” the strategist said, citing GOP votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. 

By contrast, Senate GOP candidates under pressure because of the crippled economy and Trump’s response to the pandemic are trying to make their races about myriad other issues. 

“In the most competitive Senate races, Republicans are on defense and they’re trying to shore up vulnerabilities related to the pandemic. That is the issue driving these races, and you haven’t seen in any sustained way Republican incumbents who are vulnerable copying where Trump is going,” the strategist added.

"Clearly Republican candidates are not aligned on [Trump's] message," the source said.