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 KavanaughSupreme Court rules immigrants who fear torture can appeal deportations in court It wasn't just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled Supreme Court denies California church's challenge to state restrictions 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 John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police 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 CollinsTrump expected to visit Maine despite governor's concerns Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river 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 BidenPresidents and 'presidents' Biden to blast Trump's church photo op in Philadelphia speech Rudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio MORE. She stopped short of using the standard dismissive GOP line “That’s Trump being Trump.” But Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening 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 McSallyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Minneapolis protests rock the nation Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA Pence names new press secretary MORE (Ariz.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests The Hill's Campaign Report: Minneapolis protests rock the nation McConnell: Next coronavirus bill will be final COVID-19 package MORE (Colo.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstFive things to watch in Tuesday's primaries Key races to watch in Tuesday's primaries The Hill's Coronavirus Report: National Portrait Gallery's Kim Sajet says this era rewiring people's relationship with culture, art; Trump's war with Twitter heats up MORE (Iowa), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsDeadline for Kansas Senate race passes without Pompeo filing Overnight Defense: Democrats expand probe into State IG's firing | House schedules late June votes with defense bill on deck | New Navy secretary sworn in Government watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips MORE (Kan.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits Tillis campaign releases first general election TV ad emphasizing 'humble' roots MORE (N.C.) and Collins.

And this doesn’t include potentially competitive races in Texas (John CornynJohn CornynRosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention MORE) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs Biden to deliver remarks in Philadelphia Tuesday on nationwide protests Senate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests MORE) as well as two in Georgia (David Perdue and the seat being vacated by Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonJustice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein Loeffler runs ad tying Doug Collins to Pelosi, Sanders, Biden The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip 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 PencePence on Floyd: 'No tolerance for racism' in US Pence chief of staff owns stock affected by boss's coronavirus work: report Rep. Banks launches bid for RSC chairman 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.