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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 TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? 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 BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart 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 LeeOvernight Energy: Colonial Pipeline says it has restored full service | Biden urges people not to panic about gasoline shortages | EPA rescinds Trump-era cost-benefit rule Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick Hillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (Utah) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate hears from Biden's high-profile judicial nominees for first time Senate Democrats take aim at 'true lender' interest rate rule Former North Carolina chief justice launches Senate campaign 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 McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' 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 CollinsMasks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' Senate GOP dismayed by vote to boot Cheney The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting 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 ErnstOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Study: Early unemployment cutoff would cost 16M people 0B Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE (R-Iowa) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesGOP senator urges Biden to withdraw support for COVID vaccine patent waiver Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals House conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill 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 McSallyEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds Arizona state senator announces bid for Kirkpatrick's seat Democratic Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick says she won't seek reelection MORE (R-Ariz.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 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 ThuneGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Senate GOP dismayed by vote to boot Cheney Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles 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 SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill 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 MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE’s renewed effort to cut a coronavirus deal with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Hillicon Valley: Colonial pipeline is back online, but concerns remain | Uber, Lyft struggle with driver supply | Apple cuts controversial hire Ocasio-Cortez on Taylor Greene: 'These are the kinds of people that I threw out of bars all the time' 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 ClintonHillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows 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 AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq 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 governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Trump critics push new direction for GOP Graham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' 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.”