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As Trump’s fortunes sink, Republicans start to distance themselves in bid to save Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell replaces his face mask after speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference in the summer
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell replaces his face mask after speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this summer.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

As President Trump skids deeper into political peril, anxious Republicans have started to try to distance themselves from his fate, appealing to voters to elect them as a check on a Joe Biden administration.

As they make closing arguments in a desperate bid to keep control of the Senate, even Trump loyalists are chafing when asked how deep their support for the president runs.

Senate campaigns, which previously focused on electing candidates who would be loyal to Trump, now pitch a darker message to Republican voters — one that assumes Trump won’t be there.

“If we lose the Senate, there will be no firewall to stop the Democrats from implementing their ‘Armageddon’ plan to pack the courts with activist judges and to add four new Democrats to the Senate by giving statehood to DC and Puerto Rico,” said a fundraising appeal from the Senate Conservative Fund. “We can’t allow this to happen.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants, abruptly jumped off the Trump train last week to stake out a politically — and medically — safer position on the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s biggest political liability.

McConnell said at a news conference in Kentucky on Thursday that he had not been at the White House for over a month because he did not think its safety standards were stringent enough.

“My impression was that their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I suggested that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing,” said McConnell, who is 78 and in an expensive fight for reelection this year.

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Veteran Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, in his pitch for an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle, scolded Trump for downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus. The newspaper, which had endorsed Cornyn in the past, ultimately opted to support Democrat MJ Hegar.

“I think Trump might cause us a tidal wave,” said one top Republican strategist and Trump supporter, who asked not to be named discussing internal party matters. “He is ankle weights in a pool on Senate candidates.”

The move away from Trump resembles the strategy Republicans followed in 2016, when many party leaders assumed he would lose, and in 1996, when the party’s nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, badly trailed President Clinton.

In both cases, the approach was to avoid directly criticizing the nominee for fear of alienating his loyalists, while appealing to voters to keep a Republican Congress to deny Democrats a “blank check.”

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“You need to make the argument that if you elect Biden, he has no guardrails” with a Democratic-controlled Congress, said former GOP Rep. Thomas M. Davis, who served as chair of the House Republican campaign committee from 1998 until 2003. “They will start doing goofy things like packing the Supreme Court.”

Davis said he urged GOP leaders, in a memo sent earlier this year, to pursue that strategy to tap into support from anti-Trump Republicans.

In the fall of 2016, a blitz of GOP ads in congressional races warned that Hillary Clinton was headed to the White House and that the country’s best hope of containing her “radical” agenda was making sure to send this or that Republican lawmaker to Washington.

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Among the most ardent supporters of that strategy was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic at the time who has since converted to a Trump loyalist. Now Graham is up for reelection, locked in a cutthroat race that could end his 18-year Senate career, and he is back to warning of a Democratic apocalypse.

“Let me tell you the nightmare scenario for our state,” he said in a debate with his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison. “If they keep the House, take over the Senate and Biden’s president, God help us all. ... The most liberal agenda in the history of American politics is coming out of the House to the Senate.”

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, downgraded Graham’s chances of reelection recently and said his declining fortunes underscored “just how fast the GOP majority is slipping away if they have to defend turf like this, and also how much Trump’s numbers have fallen across the board.”

Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat in racially polarized South Carolina, is giving GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham the toughest fight of his political career.

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In 2016 the warnings that a GOP Congress would be needed to hold a President Hillary Clinton in check helped Senate Republicans run 2 points ahead of Trump, according to Patrick Ruffini, a GOP strategist. That was just enough for the party to eke out wins in several key states.

Ruffini tweeted Thursday that the time had come for imperiled Republican candidates to start talking up the danger of a President Biden. “Candidates need to be thinking of how to make this same argument in the next 26 days,” his tweet said.

That strategy was particularly effective four years ago in places like the suburbs of northern Virginia, where then-Rep. Barbara Comstock held onto her seat in a district that Hillary Clinton won resoundingly. Comstock lost the seat in 2018’s anti-Trump midterm wave.

Now GOP strategists worried over Trump’s dismal approval numbers in similar suburban districts are hoping that an appeal to voters to split the ticket will stem their losses.

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“A lot of Republicans are now having to walk this line where they don’t want be too critical of Trump and anger his base, but they need to reach out to moderates and independents,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at the political forecasting journal Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

McConnell, for example, without mentioning Trump, has implied that after the November election, he could himself be the most important Republican in Washington to keep Democrats from advancing a far-reaching progressive agenda.

“The way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to keep me as the majority leader, the firewall against disaster,” McConnell said in a mid-September radio interview.

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Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents, made a similar argument in a recent debate with her Democratic rival, former astronaut Mark Kelly, when she invoked the names of Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

“We now have a situation where this is going to decide the Senate majority,” she said. “If Biden, Schumer and Pelosi are in charge, they are going to abolish the filibuster; they are going to ram through the most radical agenda.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is not up for reelection until 2022, but he’s already jumping on the bandwagon.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are already determined to pack our highest court with political, liberal judges that will legislate from the bench and ignore the Constitution,” he says in an ad on Facebook. “We need our Senate Majority to stop them.”


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