For at-Risk GOP Senate, Trump Is an Albatross

If there is one thing Senate Republicans trying hard to get reelected in November can count on, it’s that President Trump will make it even harder for them. From his gross mismanagement of a deadly pandemic to the nonstop, self-absorbed grievance parade he wants Senate Republicans to indulge during a deadly pandemic, Trump seems intent on making sure the out of control virus, the powerful issue of health care, and a tanking economy aren’t their only campaign headaches.  

In just this past week Trump has threatened two states with extortion of federal funds, accused them of fictional crimes, continued firing inspectors general and publicly taunted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — himself a candidate who was outraised last quarter by his challenger —  to “get tough” on former President Obama. He descended on the Senate GOP lunch Tuesday on short notice to lecture them on party unity and earth-scorching. 

“The president thinks we act like weenies, and he wants answers,” Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told CNN when he left, adding that Trump wants the senators to focus on matters like Michael Flynn and Carter Page. 

There is a reason Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham spoke for months about investigating the origins of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but had not undertaken it. He and other smart political minds like McConnell knew it offered far more risk than reward. Last week, when Trump said Republicans should call Obama to Congress for testimony, Graham said he would not. 

But Trump wouldn’t back down. On Saturday he retweeted someone criticizing McConnell and wrote: “Mitch, I love you, but this is 100 percent true. Time is running out. Get tough and move quickly, or it will be too late. The Dems are vicious, but got caught. They MUST pay a big price for what they have done to our Country. Don’t let them get away with this!” Trump tagged Graham on his tweet, and in a follow-up tweet said, “The Republicans must play by the same rules or die!” 

Probes into Hunter Biden or Joe Biden or Obama, while we are nearing 100,000 deaths from a fatal disease, are not exactly top of mind for the independent and swing voters vulnerable GOP senators need to win this fall. Many of those voters disapprove of all of those incumbents (save for Sen. Susan Collins) declining to hear from witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial.  Investigating Trump’s political enemies can only hurt Republicans trying to hold their majority this fall. And they are well aware they may lose it. 

If things looked bad for Senate Republicans two months ago, the scenario now is much worse.  As Republicans defend 23 seats, and Democrats just 12, forecasters now say the battle for control of the chamber is a 50-50 tossup. 

McConnell doesn’t like answering questions about Trump pushing unpopular “oversight” pursuits on his fragile Senate majority, but he has bluntly characterized the Senate campaign as “a dogfight.” Last week he added: “We have a lot of exposure.” 

Republicans are now focused on more than eight seats that are competitive and several more that will drain resources, like Texas, where Biden is close or tied in polling with Trump. Should Republicans lose four of the 53 seats they have, under President Joe Biden they would lose their majority. If Trump is reelected they will need to hold their losses to three. Trump himself is behind Biden in every national poll, by 5.5 percentage points in our RCP average, and behind him in averages of battleground states Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump is ahead in Ohio and North Carolina in RCP’s averages by less than the margin of error. 

The most imperiled Senate incumbents remain Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado,  Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Collins in Maine. Yet polls have now tightened for Joni Ernst in Iowa, David Perdue in Georgia, and Steve Daines in Montana, with some showing the incumbents behind their challengers. Kelly Loeffler, appointed to fill former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s Georgia seat in January, is way behind and could lose to Republican Rep. Doug Collins, though if none of the 14 contenders in the open “jungle” election Nov. 3 garners 50%, a run-off will take place in January. Republicans will have to spend handsomely to defend two seats in Georgia, where Peach State Republicans say Democrats are highly competitive up and down the ballot.

In Kansas, McConnell has just days left to convince Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to change his mind and file for the GOP primary race there after all, or Kris Kobach is likely to prevail, giving Democrats a chance at retiring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat. Kobach, a controversial politician, lost his bid for governor in 2018 to Democrat Laura Kelly. Republicans’ only likely pickup this cycle is the seat of Doug Jones in Alabama, but they also have a challenger in Michigan with a chance of winning the only other pickup opportunity, making Trump’s broadside against Michigan on Wednesday — a state he won in 2016 and should also want to win in 2020 — particularly strange. 

Republicans care more about holding their Senate majority than keeping the presidency, but Trump either doesn’t know this or he doesn’t care. While he has repelled many of the independent and former Republican voters that GOP senators need to win, Trump has the potential to hold on with his own voters who aren’t necessarily Republicans and may only vote for the top of the ticket. But his standing with voters outside his base would have to improve, and thus far he has chosen mobilizing and alienating over persuasion. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report recently wrote there is a more than one in three chance the Democrats will win a “trifecta” to control the White House, Senate and House of Representatives come January. There are no electoral analyses showing control of the House in play for Republicans.

Trump’s unpopularity, particularly in light of his bungling of the coronavirus, is such a liability Republicans tried to seek some distance from the president, but Trumpworld put a swift stop to that. A 57-page memo distributed to senators in cycle by the National Republican Senatorial Committee encouraged them to avoid a discussion of the president’s handling of the pandemic. “Don’t defend Trump,” the memo stated, “attack China.” Within days the NRSC walked it back after a scolding. 

Republicans seemed to have gotten the new memo. After Trump stopped by for lunch, the first subpoena, related to Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian energy company he worked for, Burisma, was issued by the Senate. McConnell said on the chamber floor this week that Trump’s campaign was “treated like a hostile foreign power by our own law enforcement.” Sen. John Thune, Republican whip, told Politico: “I think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together.”

The fortunes of Republicans were tied in good times to Trump’s great economic story, but Depression level unemployment in a pandemic has exacerbated their worst electoral weakness — health care. Millions of Americans whose coverage wasn’t repealed and replaced with something better by Republicans now join newly uninsured Americans who have lost employer-provided benefits in the outbreak, the consequences of which will grow starker in the five months until Election Day. Meanwhile the administration is party to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Democrats, who, Republicans agree, won the midterm elections in 2018 on the issue of health care, will be on offense on this number one issue to voters again this year. They are campaigning not only on the GOP’s willingness to break the ACA without an alternative, but on Medicaid expansion, touting the issue in states that have yet to pass it — states with key Senate races — including Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Kansas and Texas.

Meanwhile, as Trump goes all in on “normalization” and the “transition to greatness,” which means everyone needs to get back out and spend, GOP senators are keenly aware of polls showing Americans in both parties still fear infection. A new AP-NORC poll showed 83% of respondents fear that lifting restrictions in their area would bring new infections of COVID-19. Majorities from more than 50% to more than 80%, across every poll, show Americans share fears about the uncontrolled spread of the virus, which the federal government has failed to provide enough testing and tracing support to contain. 

As Trump taunts governors or mayors who support restrictions in their locales, it matters not whether those fears are founded, but that voters have them. Take North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has seen a boost to his approval because of his leadership during the crisis; as Trump dangles the prospect of moving the Republican National Convention in August out of the state because of its Democratic governor, it puts unnecessary pressure on Tillis to side with his constituents or Trump. 

Unless there is widespread testing and tracing, GOP lawmakers privately agree there isn’t likely to be economic improvement or any good news about the virus. For now, any news related to the coronavirus is usually bad — the president is wearing the 1.5 million infections as a “badge of honor” because that means we have done a lot of testing, even though we have not anything close to the number required to return to a functioning economy that includes confined spaces such as elevators and bathrooms. The CDC finally released the guidelines the White House threatened would “never see the light of day” and public health officials there are telling the press they have been “muzzled,” and that fewer victims of COVID-19 would have died had the Trump administration heeded their guidance back in the winter. Trump, fond of magical cures, pushes a drug he says he is taking despite the FDA telling Americans not to.  

After lunch with Republican senators Tuesday, Trump was asked about his recommendation of hydroxychloroquin, given the FDA’s warning. He dismissed a study done on COVID patients in the VA as “a ‘Trump enemy’ statement.” Trump described the sick veterans used as guinea pigs in the study as “people that were in very bad shape. They were very old, almost dead.”

It was right before he diagnosed the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, with mental illness. 

“Pelosi is a sick woman. She’s got a lot of problems, a lot of mental problems,” he said at the end of a long stemwinder on FISA abuses and Michael Flynn. 

Between now and November, Senate Republicans may want to start holding their lunch meetings on Zoom. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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