Vulnerable senators hold the key to Trump's fate

Vulnerable senators hold the key to Trump's fate
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If the end comes early for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE, it will not be at the hands of an individual. Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyClub for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment Pennsylvania's other election-night story This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Utah) is one of a long list of Republicans who, often walking single-file, have dared to publicly question this president.

Former Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and soon-to-be former Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) are among those who have chosen retirement from public service over a protracted battle for the GOP’s future.

For Romney’s part, he’s essentially acknowledged he’s a sub-party of one: “I don’t believe I’m leading a wing of the party. Because there’s no wing that’s very large that is aligned with me.” Just as Flake and Corker and others did before him, and just as Rooney has done since, Romney challenges Trump to no great effect. He hits hard, and the president hits back harder, as do Trump’s well-funded supporters.

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Likewise, the views of conservative thinkers haven’t moved the needle and never will. Outrage from former cabinet officials and advisors are largely irrelevant. Even a popular blue-state Republican governor’s warnings are yesterday’s news. 

The power of the individual is muted in Trump’s White House. Foreign policy experts are cast aside. Relationships are transient. Attacking him is a slippery proposition. Trump wields his megaphone like no other elected official has, and when it’s trained on you; few if any come to your aid.

But these next 12 months, the GOP has everything to lose, as 2020 will be the most impactful election in 20 years. For starters, the party will try to maintain legislative control in nine blue or purple states: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In seven of these states (all except North Carolina and Ohio), a mere three-seat swing to the Democrats would shift party control in one or both chambers. This precarious situation is exacerbated by Trump’s net-negative approval ratings in each of these nine states, with an average of negative-7.

Meanwhile, although taking back the U.S. House appears as daunting as ever, the presidency and U.S. Senate are still up for grabs. It’s the Senate that holds the key to Trump’s fate, and not just with respect to impeachment.

For if the end comes early for this president, it will be at the hands of many Republicans all at once—a well-coordinated, unified front seeking to wrest control of their party before it’s too late. This group likely will be comprised of the most vulnerable Republican senators and their allies. Their mission will be clear: cut off Trump to save the Senate.

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Last week’s Morning Consult polls reinforced the GOP’s dire predicament. Republicans are contending not only with an unpopular president, but also with five increasingly unpopular senators, four of whom own approval ratings below 40 percent. They represent the firewall.

If they lose, Democrats almost certainly would reclaim the Senate, and might not relinquish it for at least four years, as Republicans will be protecting roughly two-thirds of all seats in contention in 2022.

This means Democrats realistically would have four years to block a re-elected Trump’s nominees—or four years to dramatically reshape the courts alongside a new Democratic president.

Surely many Republicans believe there is still time to right the ship. And of course, there is. The only thing more disruptive than mutiny is premature mutiny.

But let’s be clear: No single salvo aimed at Trump will diminish the president’s overwhelming support among Republicans. Even a perceivably weakened Trump is significantly stronger than any other Republican on their best day. 

Aside from the constitutional electoral process, the only way Trump will leave office is if a significant number of Republican senators make it happen — if they band together and agree to absorb Trump’s punishment without breaking, without turning away, and without backing down. Their purpose: safeguard the Senate from a Democratic takeover at all costs to ensure the gains made these last three years are not lost. With sufficient numbers, they, not the president, will hold sway over the party.

It could be politically bloody. But it will assuredly end quickly. And if you asked most Republicans, a quick end would probably sound pretty good.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. His nearly 25-year career has included 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 on CNN, Fox News and dozens of radio stations across the country.