GOP anxiety grows over Trump political roller coaster
Senate Republicans are growing weary of the political roller coaster that is President Trump 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 Biden at the debate for frequently wearing a mask.
Adding to the sense of chaos, two Republican senators, Mike Lee (Utah) and Thom Tillis (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 McConnell (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.
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 2022 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.
Sen. Susan Collins (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 Ernst (R-Iowa) and Steve Daines (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 McSally (R-Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (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.
“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.
Asked if he’s concerned about Trump having a negative impact on Senate races, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (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 Schumer (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 Mnuchin’s renewed effort to cut a coronavirus deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (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 Clinton.
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 Ayotte (R-N.H.) and former Rep. Joe Heck (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 Graham (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.”