Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been signaling vulnerable GOP Senate candidates over the last few weeks that they should distance themselves from Donald Trump if they feel it’s necessary.
GOP polls have dropped through the floor in recent weeks and Republican incumbents and challengers are being outspent by Democrats who smell blood in the water.
But “running away” from an incumbent president rarely, if ever works. It might have been possible a hundred years ago but modern communications make trying to avoid being tied to an unpopular president from your own party nearly impossible. There is also the fact that Trump remains enormously popular with the GOP base and candidates risk slitting their own throat if they try criticizing the president.
“These vulnerable senators can’t afford to explicitly repudiate Trump,” said one senior Republican on Capitol Hill. “They just need to show they are independent on issues important in their states.”
Still, Trump continues to give GOP senators ways to make their break with him easier.
The President’s sustained assault on mail-in voting lacks GOP allies. And his suggestion on Thursday morning to delay the election drew open rebukes from many top Republicans, including multiple senators up for reelection, as well as McConnell.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We’ll find a way to do that again this November 3rd,” the majority leader said in an interview with WNKY.
There are at least 6 GOP Senators who are vulnerable. Martha McSally of Arizona tops the list as she is lagging both in fundraising and the polls behind Mark Kelly. Cory Gardner of Colorado is losing to a popular former governor John Hickenlooper. What’s worse for Gardner is Trump appears hopelessly behind in the state, making Gardner’s task that much more difficult. And in North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis is losing badly to Democrat Cal Cunningham.
Susan Collins in Maine, Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Steve Daines in Montana are all running against well known, popular Democrats who are well funded and giving the Republican incumbents all they can handle.
So the 3-seat Republican majority in the Senate is hanging by a thread. But why run away from Trump?
For every vote those vulnerable Senators may get by abandoning Trump they will lose at least one vote when Trump supporters stay home on election day.
Some Republican analysts are thinking beyond election day and believe holding on to every seat matters.
But the size of a net defeat for the GOP matters. Even if they lose control of the majority, Senate Republicans can effectively play defense against Democratic legislation with a large enough minority and a handful of moderate Democratic defectors. But if GOP losses in the Senate are too great, their ability to use the filibuster to force a supermajority vote to proceed on legislation will be rendered meaningless.
“Even if we lose the majority, it matters that we have 49 seats,” said the senior Republican on the Hill. “If we have 45, we can’t stop (with) the filibuster. Every seat counts.”
It’s still too early to give up on most of those vulnerable Republicans. And it’s too late for them to abandon Trump. The best they can do is keep their heads down and keep going forward, hoping the national conversation changes from the coronavirus and racial justice back to friendlier Republican issues.