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GOP anxiety grows over Trump political roller coaster

Senate Republicans are growing weary of the political roller coaster that is President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE and say their prospects of keeping the Senate in November are as unpredictable as Trump himself.

After the president’s debate performance on Tuesday, which GOP senators saw as an unforced error, they view his chances of winning a second term as uncertain as ever.

The latest Trump wild card came Friday, when the president revealed he had tested positive for the coronavirus, just days after mocking Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll Ivanka Trump raises million in a week for father's campaign On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election MORE at the debate for frequently wearing a mask.

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Adding to the sense of chaos, two Republican senators, Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGeorgia Republican Drew Ferguson tests positive for COVID-19 Trump says ex-staffer who penned 'Anonymous' op-ed should be 'prosecuted' White House to host swearing-in event for Barrett on Monday night MORE (Utah) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden barnstorm the Midwest | Texas sets statewide turnout record | Trump, Tillis trail in NC North Carolina Democrat Cunningham leads Tillis by 10 points in new poll Georgia Republican Drew Ferguson tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (N.C.), who attended a crowded White House event on Sept. 26, when Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee, revealed on Friday and Saturday that they had also tested positive for the virus.

The sudden illnesses of two GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, possibly linked to their interactions at the White House, raised questions whether Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation schedule could remain on track.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop Senate GOP super PAC makes final .6M investment in Michigan Senate race On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election Overnight Health Care: House Dem report blasts Trump coronavirus response | Regeneron halts trial of antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients | McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 MORE (R-Ky.) released a statement Saturday vowing the hearings would start on Oct. 12 as scheduled and that senators would attend virtually if necessary.

McConnell also announced that senators would not return to Washington next week to confirm a slate of district judges, as was scheduled, and instead wait until Oct. 19 to resume work at the Capitol

It was the latest example of Senate Republican planning and discipline being undermined by an unpredictable president who likes to operate by his own set of rules.

Senate Republicans have been carefully following social distancing protocols on Capitol Hill for months, but those precautions weren’t taken at the Rose Garden event where attendees, many without masks, sat packed together.

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Senate Republican leaders want to make October all about building political momentum for Barrett’s nomination and unifying their party ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.

But as has been the case for much of the past 3 1/2 years, their message is being drowned out by drama surrounding the president.

At two press conferences last week, controversy over Trump eclipsed Senate GOP talking points.

When Senate Republican leaders and a group of female Republican senators wanted to tout Barrett’s nomination, GOP lawmakers were confronted by questions about Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups during his debate with Biden.

One senior Republican senator said there’s growing Trump fatigue among colleagues and voters alike.

“One year with Trump in office feels like two years,” the senator said, alluding to Trump’s low job approval numbers, but warned the president’s popularity can’t be gauged by polls alone.

“I’ve been wrong about Trump the moment he came down the escalator,” the lawmaker said, referring to the president’s campaign kickoff at Trump Tower in 2015.

But the overriding concern of several GOP senators is that Trump has done little to reach out to independents or swing voters, making it harder for him to win again in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three states that usually vote Democratic in presidential elections. 

McConnell told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday that Republicans have a “50-50” chance of keeping the majority.

“We always knew this was going to be a challenging cycle because we had such [a] good [year] six years go,” McConnell said, citing the nine seats Senate Republicans picked up in 2014.

Senate Republicans privately note that Trump’s numbers and prospects for reelection look a lot weaker than they did at the start of the 2020 cycle, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, killing more than 200,000 people in the U.S. and sending the unemployment rate briefly above 14 percent.

FiveThirtyEight.com, a website that handicaps political races, gave Biden a 79 percent chance of winning the election as of Friday afternoon. Democrats had a 63 percent chance of flipping the Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

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Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSusan Collins says systemic racism isn't 'a problem' in Maine Biden, Cunningham hold narrow leads in North Carolina: poll GOP sees path to hold Senate majority MORE (R-Maine), who was seen last year as having a good chance of winning a fifth term, is now a slight underdog, and Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden barnstorm the Midwest | Texas sets statewide turnout record | Trump, Tillis trail in NC Oct. 30: Where Trump and Biden will be campaigning Ernst holds narrow lead over Democratic challenger in Iowa: poll MORE (R-Iowa) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesGOP sees path to hold Senate majority Democrat trails by 3 points in Montana Senate race: poll Poll shows statistical tie in Montana Senate race MORE (R-Mont.), who appeared to be cruising to reelection at the start of the year, are now in toss-up races. 

Others, like Sens. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyMark Kelly on Trump hurrying McSally rally speech: Have 'respect' Arizona: On the fast track to swing state status Trump fights for battleground Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Colo.), have lagged their Democratic challengers in the polls for much of 2020. Tillis is also trailing his Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, who raised $28.3 million in the third quarter, the most in a three-month period by a North Carolina politician.

Assuming an Election Day defeat of Sen. Doug Jones (D), who is a major underdog in Alabama, Democrats are within striking distance of picking up four to five seats and flipping the majority.

A second GOP senator who voiced pessimism about keeping control of the Senate after Nov. 3 said Trump has put vulnerable Republicans in an extremely difficult position.

The president is a drag on senators in swing states like Arizona, Colorado and Maine, and his popularity in deep-red states such as Montana and South Carolina haven’t translated into easy reelection campaigns for GOP senators, the lawmaker noted.

“I’m worried,” the GOP lawmaker said of colleagues in tough races.

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“Many of them had to make a decision a long time ago about embracing the president. Unwinding yourself from that now is really dicey,” the senator added. “Things are different now, but how do you make that separation from the president now without looking inconsistent or opportunistic?”

The senator said feelings about the prospects for Trump and Senate Republicans fluctuate significantly day to day.

“It’s highs and lows. We have good days and bad days where people are buoyed by good news, like the news that Amy Coney Barrett is going to be the nominee. She’s a solid individual, and that will help us,” the senator said.

But the GOP conference was glum a few days later after Trump squared off against Biden in Cleveland for the presidential debate. 

“There wasn’t a single Republican colleague who felt the president helped Republicans or himself. It was a downer of a day,” the source added.

McConnell has been careful not to discuss Trump’s reelection chances during conference meetings, lawmakers say. Instead, he has sought to keep the party unified on major issues before the Senate, such as a targeted coronavirus relief proposal that 52 Republican senators voted on last month and Barrett’s upcoming confirmation battle. 

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Asked if he’s concerned about Trump having a negative impact on Senate races, Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOn The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Pollsters stir debate over Trump numbers MORE (R-S.D.) said GOP candidates are running their own races. 

“They are taking their own steps to try and reach out to that audience in the middle that's going to decide the election," he told reporters.

“It does come down to independent, moderate voters, suburban voters, and I think tone matters a lot. So you know our candidates are going to have to figure out how to win that slice of the electorate and hopefully the president would help with that," he said.

Several Senate Republicans up for reelection sought to create distance between themselves and the president after Tuesday’s disappointing debate.

Five vulnerable GOP incumbents on Thursday voted for a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerReestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt' House Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Graham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs MORE (D-N.Y.) that would have prohibited the Justice Department from continuing its fight to overturn the 2010 Affordable Care Act in court.

Republicans also poured cold water on Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinDemocrats call Trump's COVID-19 response 'among the worst failures of leadership in American history' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump, Biden set for weekend swing state sprint Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' MORE’s renewed effort to cut a coronavirus deal with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election Overnight Health Care: House Dem report blasts Trump coronavirus response | Regeneron halts trial of antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients | McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 MORE (D-Calif.) on legislation that would cost $1.5 trillion or possibly more.

And several GOP lawmakers implicitly rebuked Trump’s failure to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups during Tuesday’s debate.

The week before, Senate Republicans pushed back strongly on Trump casting doubt about participating in a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November, something he doubled down on again during the debate when he warned of massive voter fraud.

But the main thing that is keeping Republican senators from jumping ship a month before the elections is the memory of 2016, when many GOP senators thought Trump was headed for defeat, only to upset Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump may continue to campaign after Election Day if results are not finalized: report Hillicon Valley: Biden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked | Majority of voters in three swing states saw ads on social media questioning election validity: poll | Harris more often the target of online misinformation Analysis: Where the swing states stand in Trump-Biden battle MORE. 

Republicans who withdrew their endorsements of Trump in October that year after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced found themselves in an awkward position after Election Day.

And at least a couple Senate candidates, such as former Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBottom line The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-N.H.) and former Rep. Joe HeckJoseph (Joe) John HeckAmericans want to serve — it's up to us to give them the chance GOP anxiety grows over Trump political roller coaster Creating a more secure nation means public service hiring practices need an overhaul MORE (R-Nev.), were left wondering if their decision to distance themselves from Trump cost them their races.

Just four weeks out from this year’s elections, with Trump floundering, some Senate Republicans are starting to think the best-case scenario might be them narrowly keeping control of the Senate accompanied by a Trump loss. 

But there have been a few bright spots recently, GOP senators say. 

One was a ABC News-Washington Post poll showing McSally trailing Democrat Mark Kelly by only 1 percentage point in Arizona.

Another was news that the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC allied with McConnell, is spending $9 million in the Michigan Senate race, which GOP senators are taking as a sign that it’s still a potential Republican pickup.

Trump is “both” a headwind and tailwind for GOP candidates, said a third GOP senator, citing Collins and Gardner as those most hurt by Trump. Those most helped include Daines, McConnell, Tillis and Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP faces fundraising reckoning as Democrats rake in cash The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Election night could be a bit messy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states MORE (S.C.) and David Perdue (Ga.), the senator said. 

“There’s a sense of unease, uncertainty. But people still think it’s more likely Republicans retain the Senate than not,” the GOP senator added. “I think there’s a recognition [that] if the president isn’t reelected, there needs to be a backstop of a Republican Senate to be a counterbalance to a Democrat House and Democrat president.”