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Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play

Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play
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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 KavanaughLIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing Harris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Why we need Section 230 more than ever 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.

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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 TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds 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 CollinsGOP senators praise Biden's inauguration speech LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing The Memo: Biden prepares for sea of challenges 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 BidenKaty Perry and her 'Firework' close out inauguration TV special Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Tom Hanks: After years of 'troubling rancor,' Inauguration Day 'is about witnessing the permanence of our American ideal' MORE. She stopped short of using the standard dismissive GOP line “That’s Trump being Trump.” But Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment Yellen champions big spending at confirmation hearing 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. 

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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 McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE (Ariz.), Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (Colo.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstSenate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Democrats torn on impeachment trial timing GOP senator questions constitutionality of an impeachment trial after Trump leaves office MORE (Iowa), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes Window quickly closing for big coronavirus deal Trump's controversial Fed nominee stalled after Senate setback MORE (Kan.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSchumer becomes new Senate majority leader Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (N.C.) and Collins.

And this doesn’t include potentially competitive races in Texas (John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats torn on impeachment trial timing McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment Schumer: Trump should not be eligible to run for office again MORE) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE) as well as two in Georgia (David Perdue and the seat being vacated by Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonLoeffler concedes to Warnock Hawley to still object to Pennsylvania after Capitol breached Hillary Clinton trolls McConnell: 'Senate Minority Leader' 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 PenceBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Overnight Health Care: Biden signs first executive actions as president | Amazon offers to help Biden with vaccine distribution | Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Sanders's inauguration look promptly gets a bobblehead 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.