Senate Republicans are on the defensive as President Donald Trump’s political woes, the coronavirus pandemic and economic turmoil put them at risk of losing their majority in the Nov. 3 election.
That presents them with a crucial strategy decision: Do they inch away from Trump and risk alienating his fervent supporters at the core of the party? Or do they maintain a united front that could make it harder for them to win over more moderate voters who are souring on the president?
Seven months ago, congressional Republicans gave Trump a bulwark of support during his impeachment trial, with all but one of them — Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah — voting to acquit.
More recently, GOP senators have shown some willingness to push back on the president but they are doing so selectively – on issues such as mask wearing and the trustworthiness of mail-in voting – and most of them studiously avoid direct criticism that could trigger his wrath.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has contradicted the president’s claim that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud. Thune said the practice has been “used in a lot of places for a long time” and is secure.
Thune and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican running for reelection, were among several lawmakers who expressed wariness this week about Trump’s idea of holding his formal GOP nomination speech at the White House – a break from decades of holding such events off the premises.
The White House? Gettysburg? Florida?: Trump team looks at options for nomination speech
Yet Republicans are keenly aware that Trump’s loyal political base is essential to retaining their 53-47 majority in the Senate. Turning against the president in swing states such as Colorado, Maine, North Carolina or Arizona is foolish, GOP strategists said.
“If they do that, it will be suicide for the Republicans,” said John Feehery, a former top congressional aide. “If you are seen as turning your back on the president, a Trump voter will turn their back on you and you will lose the election.”
Struggles in the suburbs
On the other hand, there has been anxiety within the GOP lately as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has strengthened his standing with coveted suburban voters.
“I think the president’s combative style has appealed more to rural and exurban voters who are suspicious of the establishment,” David Kochel, a former chief strategist for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, told USA Today.
“He has more support among non-college voters than past GOP candidates, but there is no question he has had a more difficult time with college-educated suburban voters, as evidenced by the midterm elections.”
Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is a dominant theme in an election year when he and Republicans had hoped to run on the message of a strong economy. Instead, job losses and business closures caused by the pandemic have stolen away the president’s most effective reelection argument to upscale voters, Kochel said.
This summer’s resurgence in COVID-19 cases has given some GOP senators another reason to keep their distance.
In late May, Trump mocked Biden for wearing a protective mask and chided a reporter who wore one to a Rose Garden news conference, suggesting the journalist was doing so “to be politically correct.” The president rarely wears a face covering in public. While some Republican lawmakers also forgo masks, many others do the opposite and urge their constituents to follow federal health guidelines.
In June, when the White House decided to pull back on federally supported testing sites, some Republican senators up for reelection questioned the logic.
“Frankly I didn’t really understand what they were thinking,” Cornyn told Politico. “… At a time cases are spiking, we’re gonna pull back?”
When the White House took aim at Dr. Anthony Fauci by trotting out a series of talking points against him, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina defended the nation’s top infectious disease specialist.
“We don’t have a Dr. Fauci problem,” Graham, who narrowly leads his Democratic challenger in recent polls, told reporters. “We need to be focusing on doing things that get us to where we need to go. So, I have all the respect in the world for Dr. Fauci. I think any effort to undermine him is not going to be productive, frankly.”
Even on the culture wars, the Republican-controlled Senate parted ways with Trump this summer when it easily passed a defensive bill calling for the removal of the names of Confederate soldiers from military bases. Trump had threatened a veto but ultimately backed down.
Republican pollster Whit Ayers said this is part of a more subtle signaling to certain voters that will continue during the 2020 election cycle.
“The Republican Senate candidates in swing states are going to need to emphasize their own independent contributions to their state and talk about how they are better than the Democratic nominee to represent the values of their state,” he said.
Most GOP senators running for reelection in 2016 outperformed then-candidate Trump in their respective states. So when an old video of the real estate mogul bragging about groping women was released only weeks before the election, it was easier for the handful of incumbents who did rebuke him to do so.
While in office, the president has maintained a tight grip on the party, in part because of his willingness to use his platform on Twitter to attack those he sees as disloyal but also because of his popularity with the base. Nine of 10 Republicans approve of the job the president is doing, a number that has stayed relatively constant during his tenure, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll.
And yet there are some disagreements. Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans batted away Trump’s call to delay the Nov. 3 election.
Meanwhile, Trump has faded from some Senate Republican campaign ads as COVID-19 cases and deaths have begun to spike again.
“There’s not been a lot of overt distancing because the necessity to win all the Trump voters limits the amount of distancing that a Republican Senate candidate can achieve,” Ayres, the pollster, said.
The pushback from GOP senators is rare enough that even Trump seems surprised when it happens.
A reporter asked the president Wednesday about Sen. Thune’s concerns about the legality of holding his acceptance speech at the White House.
“John Thune did, right?” Trump responded. “The Republican John Thune? Well, Okay.”
Democrats, meanwhile, want voters to judge Senate Republicans and Trump as a pair.
“Republican incumbents are at risk because of their own toxic records in Washington, and refusing to hold the president accountable is another example of that failure,” Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee, said.
“Their glowing praise for Trump’s inept response to this public health and economic crisis shows they aren’t listening to voters and are unwilling to be independent voices for their states.”
A PBS/Marist poll of registered voters conducted in June found two-thirds of suburban women said they did not approve of Trump’s overall job performance, including 58% who “strongly” disapprove.
But such polls have not scared off Republicans such as Sen. Thom Tillis. The North Carolinian’s campaign made clear to the Associated Press in June that he is “looking forward to campaigning” with Trump.
A recent poll by Morning Consult showed Tillis, who has had trouble with the conservative base in the past, trailing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham by 7%.
What may be more telling, however, is that he lags behind Trump by 10% when their respective reelection contests are compared.
A visit from Ivanka Trump
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, of Colorado, trails Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper by 6% in the same Morning Consult survey. But he slightly outpaces Trump by about 3%.
Last month, Gardner joined Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, at a childcare event in The Centennial State.
Instead of repudiation, GOP candidates have chosen a more subtle approach that emphasizes bipartisan cooperation or their leadership on state issues.
“It is normal for U.S. Senate candidates to run on their own records and the voters expect you to do so,” Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant, told USA Today. “They can’t make their own weather, but they can make their own sails.”
Todd said that means GOP campaigns have accepted that the national dynamic around Trump, COVID-19 and country’s economy is already known to most voters. He said rather than alienating the president’s core base, Republican Senate campaigns must seek to build off of the existing coalition.
“What I would call regular Republicans, Trump-only voters who are marginal and don’t turn out very often, and mostly suburban swing voters who tend to be right-of-center on policy but not always crazy about the president’s methods,” Todd said.
Republican campaign officials working across multiple states say their emphasis is on winning over persuadable voters by drawing a contrast with Democrats on the economy.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, previewed its upcoming ad blitz in several races, including North Carolina. A memo from the committee highlighted plans to bombard Tillis’ Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, for what it says is “his coziness with the far-left.”
“This race will not be easy, and Tillis has ground to make up, but Tillis has already shown he’s ready for this fight and his record of leadership is a stark contrast to Cunningham’s,” the NRSC memo said.
The document noted how Democrats have a favorable map and have spent more than $200 million in this cycle.
“Despite that, and an incredibly favorable environment, the race for the Senate majority is still dead even,” the NRSC memo said. “That is a testament to the strength of our candidates.”
One name never mentioned in the memo: Trump, whom the NRSC instructed candidates not to defend earlier this year at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak.
‘I don’t want a delay’: Trump rows back on delaying election but not on mail-in ballots
But even subtle distancing from Trump is unlikely to go much further than it has, some analysts said.
In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole was trailing Democratic President Bill Clinton by double digits. GOP operatives began to trot out a late message that assumed Clinton would win, and instead stressed how voters should care about the congressional election outcome.
“That did not make the Dole campaign happy at all, but they nevertheless tried to separate themselves from Bob Dole in that way,” Ayers, the pollster, said. “It’s hard to imagine that sort of messaging not generating a ripping tweet from President Trump.”
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at pbailey@USAToday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: GOP senators make subtle moves to distance from Trump