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 KavanaughOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Progressives hope to avoid drug-pricing showdown with Pelosi | 'Medicare for All' backers get high-profile hearing | Dems take victory lap after eliminating drug protections in trade deal Justices grapple with multibillion-dollar ObamaCare case Potential Dem defectors face pressure on impeachment 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 TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump 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 BidenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers MORE. She stopped short of using the standard dismissive GOP line “That’s Trump being Trump.” But Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn House GOP lawmaker wants Senate to hold 'authentic' impeachment trial Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial 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 McSallySeven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday White House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform MORE (Ariz.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (Colo.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstWhite House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (Iowa), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman The Hill's Morning Report - Intel panel readies to hand off impeachment baton The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' MORE (Kan.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Democrats spend big to put Senate in play Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' MORE (N.C.) and Collins.

And this doesn’t include potentially competitive races in Texas (John CornynJohn CornynTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA MORE) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' McConnell: Bevin pardons 'completely inappropriate' House panel to hold hearing, vote on Trump's new NAFTA proposal MORE) as well as two in Georgia (David Perdue and the seat being vacated by Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Lankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman The Hill's 12:30 Report: Job growth soars in November 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 PenceMark Levin calls Trump 'first Jewish president' Pence: It's not a 'foregone conclusion' that lawmakers impeach Trump Pence's office questions Schiff's request to declassify more material from official's testimony: report 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.