Endangered Republicans keeping distance from Trump

As the president’s numbers slip, Republicans are recalibrating their strategy for winning in tough times.

by Josh Kraushaar

At the end of a recent column, I argued that the odds of a Democratic blowout in this November’s election were now as likely as a Trump victory. It offered a warning that the political map has dramatically changed since the pandemic began, and that congressional Republicans can’t rely on the same assumptions that drove their thinking for the last year.

Here are some staples of the GOP’s pre-pandemic thinking:

  • Republicans should embrace the president at all costs, even in swing states where his job approval is underwater.
  • It’s more important to rally the base than persuade swing suburbanites.
  • With Republicans defending most of their Senate seats in Trump territory, simply holding the president’s voters would be adequate to maintain Mitch McConnell’s majority.

Here’s what I’m hearing from smart GOP strategists now: Republicans should be talking about their work to help their communities in the wake of the pandemic, and avoid referencing Trump’s role in managing the crisis. To win battleground Senate seats that are looking more tenuous, it will be crucial to maintain support from some Trump-skeptical independents. If Trump’s political condition doesn’t improve by the fall, prepare to talk about keeping the Senate as a check against Democratic power, even if it means acknowledging the presidency is likely lost.

“The Republican argument could pivot: If you don’t like Trump, you also don’t want to give Democrats the keys to the kingdom. You’ve got to put a check on Biden,” said former Republican congressman Tom Davis. “You can’t let them control everything. That’s a tenable argument for independent voters.”

Driving this subdued pragmatism are Trump’s sliding poll numbers across the country, particularly in GOP-leaning states that once looked safely in the president’s column. Trump, who is planning to visit Arizona and Ohio as part of his first trip outside Washington since the pandemic hit, is now playing political defense in states he comfortably carried in 2016. Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2016, and the state wasn’t considered a leading battleground for 2020. Both parties view Arizona as highly competitive, but the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996.

A new slate of reputable red-state polls released this week will raise further alarm at the White House, where the president has already been fuming over his declining numbers. A survey commissioned by Georgia House Republicans painted a grim picture across the state for the entire party. Trump only led Biden by one point in the survey, 45 to 44 percent, well within the margin of error. Biden leads Trump by 15 points among independent voters in the state, and by a whopping 43 points among moderates.

Equally worrisome for Republicans are signs that Trump’s problems are affecting downballot GOP candidates. Sen. David Perdue only polled at 45 percent in the Georgia survey, leading Democrat Jon Ossoff by a mere six points. Perdue’s race has been seen as an afterthought, compared to the state’s higher-profile Senate special election in November. In the special election, appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler holds a dismal 20-47 favorability rating, and is at risk of not making the expected runoff. (The silver lining for Republicans: GOP Rep. Doug Collins is viewed much more favorably, and would start out as the favorite in a runoff.)

In Texas, a state that the president should have locked down, a recent poll conducted for the Texas Tribune shows a surprisingly competitive race. Trump leads Biden by five points, 49 to 44 percent, holding a mere 49 percent job approval rating in a reliably Republican bastion. Trump’s saving grace is that Biden looks even less popular in the red state, with a net -16 favorability rating (35-51).

And in North Carolina, poll after poll paints a challenging picture for Republicans. Four separate statewide polls conducted in the last two weeks all show Biden holding leads ranging from three to seven points. This state is the most consequential of all the battlegrounds, since it features a bellwether Senate race that’s likely to determine which party controls the upper chamber. Republican strategists tracking the race believe that Trump needs to carry the state for Sen. Thom Tillis to win; they’re skeptical that the freshman senator can run ahead of the president.

The question of whether most Republican candidates are capable of running ahead of Trump will soon become more urgent—especially if the president’s popularity continues to sag. With Trump’s approval remaining rock-solid among Republicans—not to mention Trump’s political team warning candidates to stick with the president at all costs—vulnerable members don’t have many good options. Damned if they stick with Trump, damned if they don’t.

But some campaigns are starting to experiment with a third way, avoiding polarizing national issues in favor of reminders about their constituent services in a time of crisis. Arizona Sen. Martha McSally is out with a new ad touting her personal work to help her state during the crisis, featuring video of her donating blood and volunteering at a local food bank. Tillis is reminding North Carolinians that he voted for the bipartisan coronavirus aid package. McConnell is promoting his experience working with both Republican and Democratic presidents to pass pivotal legislation, branding himself as an effective Washington insider in turbulent times.

Trump isn’t mentioned at all in the McSally and Tillis ads and is only seen briefly in the one-minute McConnell spot. The senators’ earlier campaign ads made Trump the centerpiece of their campaign messaging.

“The good thing about Senate races is they’re big enough to be their own thing. If you work hard enough you can create the circumstances of your own campaign,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell. “Good campaigns can win in bad years. Bad campaigns can lose in good years. It’s up to the individual campaign to define their opponent and themselves, regardless of what the overall environment is going to be.”

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly “Against the Grain” column.

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