Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play

Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play
© Getty Images

It’s been quite a decade for the Republican Party. Nine years ago, Republicans obliterated Democrats nationwide at all levels of government — from the Senate to the House, from governorships to state legislatures

Four years, ago Donald Trump took a lead he’d never relinquish in the Republican presidential primaries, paving the way for a presidency that has no room for dissenters.

Nearly a year ago, Republicans celebrated Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughConservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation Supreme Court weighs whether to limit issuance of exemptions to biofuel blending requirements The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP makes infrastructure play; Senate passes Asian hate crimes bill MORE’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, solidifying a 5-4 conservative majority that could, with one more liberal departure, all but guarantee a conservative court for a generation. Holding the U.S. Senate that November looked promising, while maintaining control of the U.S. House remained a strong possibility, particularly after the successful Kavanaugh battle sparked an upswing in Republican enthusiasm.


But there is no immutability in politics. Fortunes change even when leaders don’t change — and sometimes fortunes change because leaders don’t change. It can be argued the GOP’s lockstep support of President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE will be its undoing in 2020 after a decade of near-dominance. Even as House Democrats initiated a formal impeachment inquiry this week, few Republican legislators have dared to publicly criticize the president.

Even Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate votes to repeal OCC 'true lender' rule Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote MORE (R-Maine), one of her party’s most vulnerable Senators heading into next November’s elections, declined to pass judgment despite the White House’s acknowledgement that, among other things, Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his possible 2020 opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE. She stopped short of using the standard dismissive GOP line “That’s Trump being Trump.” But Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneBiden-McConnell cold war unlikely to end at White House Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote MORE (R-S.D.), took the bait: “I think that a lot of people are going to take a look at it and say that’s Trump being Trump.” 

The challenge here for Republicans is that they believe the country — or at least a majority of the country (or at least 270 electoral votes of the country ) — will support Trump regardless. And why wouldn’t they believe this?  

A record 91 percent of Republicans back the president, according to the latest Gallup survey conducted Sept. 3 to Sept. 15. Some leaders are convinced that “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is driving moderates away from Democrats. And from talk radio to Fox News to the conservative blogosphere, conservatives continually have warned that liberals are “overplaying their hand,” even when that “hand” was dealt by voters. 

The GOP is running out of time at the worst possible time. The 2020 election will be the most impactful election since 2000 — the last time Americans elected not only a president but also governors and legislators responsible for the decennial redrawing of legislative maps. 


Trump has been mired in double-digit net-negative approval ratings for all but about three months of his presidency. Swing-state voters are turning on him. Even a recent Quinnipiac University poll of Texas voters found that 48 percent of respondents “definitely” would not vote for Trump next year, versus 35 percent claiming they “definitely” would. It’s a shocking indictment of a president and party in a state they can’t afford to lose.

And yet most Republican leaders are still clinging to the outmoded notion that publicly aligning with Trump is a winning strategy.

If the party is wrong — if stalwart support for this president is political kryptonite — then they stand to lose big next November. In the U.S. Senate alone, Democrats will defend one vulnerable seat: Doug Jones’s in Alabama. Meanwhile, Republicans will defend six potentially vulnerable seats: 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 (Ariz.), 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 (Colo.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGraham warns about trying to 'drive' Trump from GOP: 'Half the people will leave' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate braces for daylong brawl on elections bill Top female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' MORE (Iowa), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 Lobbying world MORE (Kan.), 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.) and Collins.

And this doesn’t include potentially competitive races in Texas (John CornynJohn CornynBiden-McConnell cold war unlikely to end at White House There will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Republican governor of Arkansas says 'Trump is dividing our party' MORE) as well as two in Georgia (David Perdue and the seat being vacated by Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonLoeffler group targets Democrats with billboards around baseball stadium Warnock raises nearly M since January victory Five big takeaways on Georgia's new election law MORE).

Republicans might still determine that abandoning Trump — and likely the presidency — is their best hope for preserving some power in Washington. But the longer they wait, the more politically damaging the breakup will be. End it now and there’s still time to rally around President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceCruz outspending other senators on Facebook ads: report Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority GOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories MORE and perhaps broaden the party’s appeal with the selection of a new vice president.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.