McConnell message to Republican Senate candidates: distance from Trump if necessary

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In recent weeks, the Senate Majority Leader has become so concerned with Republicans losing control of the Senate that he has signaled vulnerable GOP senators in tough races that they may distance themselves from the President s ‘they felt it was necessary, according to several high-ranking Republicans. including a source close to McConnell.

While this may give some Senators the opportunity to distinguish between themselves and the Speaker, it also forces them to walk a tightrope. Trump remains extremely popular with the Republican base, and any attempt to undermine him risks alienating those voters.

“These vulnerable senators cannot afford to explicitly repudiate Trump,” a senior Republican said on Capitol Hill. “They just need to show that they are independent on the important issues in their states. “

Yet Trump continues to empower GOP senators to ease their break with him.The president’s sustained assault on postal voting lacks GOP allies. And his suggestion Thursday morning to delay the election drew open rebuke from many high-profile Republicans, including several senators facing re-election, as well as McConnell.

“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and civil war, have we never had federal elections scheduled on time. We’ll find a way to do it again on November 3, ”the Majority Leader said in an interview with WNKY.

Mathematics of the Senate

Republicans currently have a three-seat majority and at least six incumbent senators who face serious Democratic challengers. According to Republicans, the most vulnerable are Sens. Martha McSally from Arizona, Thom Tillis from North Carolina and Cory Gardner from Colorado. Despite polls showing a close race in Maine, GOP sources in recent weeks have seemed more optimistic about Senator Susan Collins, long a target of Democrats and liberal interest groups.

The senses. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Steve Daines of Montana are also concerned. While some Republicans believe they are both in good shape, other GOP sources tell CNN these races are extremely tight and the fortunes of both candidates may ultimately depend on how Trump does on the day of the day. ballot in both states. The senior Republican on Capitol Hill even expressed his caution about Senator Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s first-term Republican who was otherwise considered relatively safe.

With Republican candidate Tommy Tuberville set to defeat Democratic Senator from Alabama Doug Jones in November, McConnell can afford to lose up to three of those endangered seats while retaining a slim majority.

But the size of a net loss for the GOP matters. Even if they lose majority control, Senate Republicans can effectively play the defense against Democratic legislation with a large enough minority and a handful of moderate Democratic deserters. But if the GOP’s losses in the Senate are too great, their ability to use filibuster to force a majority vote to pass into law will become meaningless.

Three charts that show how Republicans are losing their chance to keep the Senate

“Even if we lose the majority, it is important that we have 49 seats,” said the top Republican on the Hill. “If we have 45, we cannot stop (with) the filibuster. Every seat counts. ”

And the trajectory of the presidential race – Joe Biden leads Trump by 14 points nationally in the latest CNN poll – and the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic have made the GOP’s margin protection project 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 need to make sure that we hold the Senate no matter who is elected president. “

First signs of distance

There are some signs that Republicans are already starting to differentiate themselves in subtle ways from Trump. Publicly, McConnell has embraced and promoted wearing a mask as the “most important thing” people can do – days and weeks before Trump finally released his support for wearing a mask. A new Collins ad shows a photo of herself surrounded by fellow Democrats as she claims to be “bipartisan” and “efficient” for Maine, while Gardner has emphasized her good faith in environmental conservation.

U.S. Senator Cory Gardner speaks during day one of Justice Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“They are elected to represent a state, so they should have the freedom to represent the people who vote for them,” Zeidman said. “And if that means taking positions that aren’t fully endorsed or consistent with the White House, that’s what a democracy is. ”

Getting re-elected Republican in 2020, however, is a big part of changing the subject of Trump and his response to the pandemic.

Endangered GOP senators have turned to bragging about their own positive deeds, from individual elements in the first pandemic economic stimulus bill to further efforts to address testing issues in their home states. Tillis’ campaign links back to a letter the North Carolina Republican wrote to Vice President Mike Pence in March asking for more coronavirus testing. And in its first campaign ad this year, Gardner highlighted local reports on its successful efforts to import Covid masks and test kits from East Asia to Colorado.

Last week, Gardner joined three of his colleagues in tough races – Tillis, Collins and McSally – to sign a public letter encouraging McConnell to include spending on clean energy projects in the latest round of stimulus spending.

Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, said this type of negotiation between endangered GOP senators in the stimulus bill “tells you everything you need to know” about the state of the elections and the expectation that Trump heading for defeat.

“Vulnerable members are in desperate need of something to do while their ambitious colleagues in safe seats cancel 2020 and reflect on what they are doing and saying now in 2024,” Donovan said.

Caught in a dead end

Still, most Republican Senate candidates stick tightly to the president. McConnell or the Republican Senate candidates are unlikely to directly reprimand Trump, even if the president continues to follow Biden. As toxic as it may be to suburban moderates, the Trump brand remains a key link for GOP senators to the party base. Last week, for example, Gardner appeared alongside presidential daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump at an official childcare event in Colorado.

For the other candidates, the distance between them and Trump is not even an option. Republican agents say that in places like North Carolina and Arizona, the fate of outgoing GOP senators will be irrevocably tied to Trump.

This puts GOP senators in jeopardy. Republicans have little incentive to break with the president and risk losing support from his base, which is a vital part of the GOP coalition. But contrasting with the president, at least on Covid, opens the door to winning over those swing voters who will vote against Trump and otherwise oppose the president’s allies with a lower vote.

McSally, who follows his Democratic challenger Mark Kelly in nearly every recent poll, finds himself caught in this stalemate.

A recent CNN poll of registered voters in Arizona found that 60% disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, suggesting there may be an opening to criticize the president, or at least stand out from him. But McSally’s path to victory requires every Trump voter to pull the lever for her as well. Any distance McSally tries to put between herself and Trump risks making matters worse. Several Republican sources told CNN they believe McSally is the most vulnerable and is in danger of losing.

McSally’s and Tillis’ campaigns indicate that their goal will be to create a contrast between themselves and their Democratic opponents over which party is best positioned to boost the economy. But their overall focus is off Trump – a strong indication that there isn’t much more to be gained from association with the president.

Follow the money

Republican money may also start to gravitate most strongly to the Senate side of the ledger. In June, GOP megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $ 25 million to the McConnell Senate Leadership Fund, giving the super PAC $ 97 million to the bank at the end of the second quarter. (During the same period, the SLF’s Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority PAC, raised $ 30 million and at the end of June had $ 87 million in cash.)

The Republican National Senate Committee, meanwhile, spent in the first half of the year between $ 4 million and $ 6 million in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa, while spending just over $ 3.5 million. at the same time in Maine (where outside of the super PACs on both sides have spent a lot) and Arizona.

This follows where super PACs on both sides have prioritized their spending in recent weeks. According to Kantar Media, TV and digital ad spend on Senate races during the month of July was highest in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado (along with Kansas, which has a competitive Senate primary in GOP in August).

There are some in Washington who are less dire about the GOP circumstances. Scott Reed, the veteran Republican strategist who heads the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce, issued a hopeful note on the ability of first-term GOP senators like Gardner and Tillis to close the deal upon re-election.

“The presidential race will tighten up and this Senate class of 2014 is strong, strong and well-versed to win,” said Reed, who echoed other Republicans in giving Collins the best chance of the four vulnerable GOP senators. to win re-election.

A senior Republican who spoke to CNN was more distraught as to where Trump had placed the party less than 100 days before the election. “Where can we play the offensive? Zero place, ”said this Republican. “Where is he playing defense? All the places he shouldn’t have to worry about. “

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.

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