WASHINGTON – Vulnerable Republicans are increasingly taking careful, but clear, steps to distance themselves from President Donald Trump, one sign of a new wave of GOP anxiety that the president's crisis-to-crisis reelection bid could bring down Senate candidates across the country.
In key races from Arizona to Texas, Kansas and Maine, Republican senators long afraid of the president’s power to strike back at his critics are starting to break with the president — particularly over his handling of the pandemic — in the final stretch of the election. GOP strategists say the distancing reflects a startling erosion of support over a brutal 10-day stretch for Trump, starting with his seething debate performance when he did not clearly denounce a white supremacist group through his hospitalization with COVID-19 and attempts to downplay the virus's danger.
Even the somewhat subtle moves away from Trump are notable. For years, Republican lawmakers have been loath to criticize the president — and have gone to great lengths to dodge questions — fearful of angering Trump supporters they need to win. But with control of the Senate in the balance, GOP lawmakers appear to be shifting quickly to do what’s necessary to save their seats.
“The Senate map is looking exceedingly grim,” said one major GOP donor, Dan Eberhart.
Republican prospects for holding its 53-47 majority have been darkening for months. But recent upheaval at the White House has accelerated the trend, according to conversations with a half-dozen GOP strategists and campaign advisers, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations.
The strategists noted the decision to rush to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett has not swung voters toward the GOP as hoped. Several noted internal polls suggested Republican-leaning, undecided voters were particularly turned off by the president’s debate performance and his conduct since being diagnosed with the coronavirus. It wasn’t clear that these voters would cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden, but they might stay home out of what one strategist described as a feeling of Trump fatigue.
Public polling shows Trump trailing Biden nationally but typically by smaller numbers in key battleground states.
“I think a lot of Republicans are worried that this is a jailbreak moment, and people who have been sitting on the fence looking for a rationale to stick with the president are instead abandoning the ship,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic.