In recent weeks, the Senate majority leader has become so concerned about Republicans losing control of the Senate that he referred to vulnerable GOP senators in tough races who could distance themselves from the President if they feel that it is necessary, according to senior Republicans including a source close to McConnell.
While this may give some senators the flexibility to distinguish between them and the President, it also forces them to move forward. Trump remains very popular with the Republican base, and any attempt to cut him off risks alienating those voters.
“These vulnerable senators cannot afford to explicitly reject Trump,” one senior Republican said on Capitol Hill. “They just need to show that they are independent on important issues in their states.”;
Still, Trump continues to give GOP senators ways to make their stay with him easier.
Republicans currently have a three-seat majority and at least six senators facing serious Democratic challengers. Older Republicans say the most vulnerable are Sens Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Despite polls showing a tight race in Maine, GOP sources in recent weeks have felt more optimistic about Senate Susan Collins, a long-term target of Democrats and liberal interest groups.
Sense Joni Ernst of Iowa and Steve Daines of Montana are also of concern. While some Republicans believe they are both in good shape, other GOP sources tell CNN that the races are strictly tight and that the fortunes of both candidates may ultimately depend on how Trump does in Election Day in both states. The senior Republican Hill Capitol even expressed caution about Sen. Dan Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s first Republican term otherwise thought to be relatively safe.
But the size of a net defeat for the GOP is important. Even if they lose control of the majority, Senate Republicans can effectively play defense against Democratic legislation with a sufficiently large minority and a small number of moderate Democratic defectors. But if the GOP’s loss in the Senate is too great, their ability to use the filibuster to force a super-majority vote to proceed on legislation would be meaningless.
“Even if we lose the majority, it’s important to have 49 seats,” the senior Republican said on the Hill. “If we’re 45, we can’t stop (with) the filibuster. Every seat counts.”
And the trajectory of the presidential race – Joe Biden leads Trump with 14 national points in the most recent CNN poll – and the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic have made the project to protect the margins of the GOP even more urgent.
“Major GOP donors are redirecting money to Senate races,” said Fred Zeidman, a Republican donor from Texas. “The Senate is the firewall. We want to make sure we keep the Senate regardless of who is elected president.”
Early signs of distance
“They are being elected to represent a state, so they should have the freedom to represent the people who are voting for them,” Zeidman said. “And if that means taking positions that aren’t fully endorsed or consistent with the White House, that’s about democracy.”
Getting re-elected as a Republican in 2020, however, is largely about the change of subject by Trump and his response to the pandemic.
Endangered GOP senators have resorted to attacking their own positive acts, from individual points in the first pandemic economic stimulus bill to extra efforts to solve testing problems in their home states. The Tillis campaign recalls a letter the North Carolina Republican wrote to Vice President Mike Pence in March calling for more coronavirus testing. And in his first campaign this year Gardner highlighted local news reports about his successful efforts to import Covid masks and test kits from East Asia to Colorado.
Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, said this kind of negotiation by endangered GOP senators in the stimulus bill “tells you everything you need to know” about the state of the election and the wait that Trump is leading to defeat.
“Vulnerable members desperately need to do something while their ambitious colleagues in safe places are writing until 2020 and thinking about how they will do and say it now in 2024,” Donovan said.
Trapped in a tie
For other candidates, the distance between them and Trump is not even an option. Republican operatives say that in places like North Carolina and Arizona, the fate of established GOP senators will be irrevocably tied to Trump.
This puts GOP senators in danger of a dilemma. There is little incentive for Republicans to share with the President and risk losing support from his base, forming a critical part of the GOP coalition. But if contrasted with the President, at least on Covid, it opens the door to victory over those swing voters who will vote against Trump and who will otherwise oppose the President’s voting allies.
McSally, who follows her Democratic challenger Mark Kelly in almost every recent poll, finds herself trapped in this tie.
Both McSally’s and Tillis’s campaigns say their focus will be on drawing a contrast between themselves and their Democratic opponents as to which party will be in the best position to restore the economy. . But their overall focus is outside of Trump – a strong indication that there is not much more that can be achieved from an association with the President.
Follow the money
Meanwhile, the Republican National Senatorial Committee spent the first half of the year between $ 4 and $ 6 million in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, while spending just over $ 3.5 million at the same time in Maine ( where outside the super PACs on both sides spent a lot) and in Arizona.
Those tracks where there are super PACs on both sides have been prioritizing their spending in recent weeks. According to Kantar Media, TV and digital advertising spending for Senate races during the month of July was highest in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado (along with Kansas, which has a competitive GOP Senate in August).
There are some in Washington who are less harsh on circumstances for the GOP. Scott Reed, the veteran Republican strategist who leads the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce, has issued a note of hope on the ability for GOP senators for the first term such as Gardner and Tillis to close the deal on re-election.
“The Presidential race is going to tighten and this 2014 Senate class is strong, strong and able to win,” said Reed, who republished other Republicans to give Collins the best shot of the four senators. Vulnerable GOP of winning re-election.
A senior Republican who spoke to CNN was more sad about where Trump put the party less than 100 days before the election. “Where can we play offense? Zero places,” said this Republican. “Where is the defense playing? All the places they don’t have to worry about.”
CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.