For four years, Republican senators have shrugged off President Donald Trump’s constant string of controversies and scandals. They’ve ignored his Twitter outbursts and endless grievances. And they’ve avoided confronting him, while voting mostly in lockstep for his agenda and protecting him during his impeachment trial.
But two weeks until Election Day, GOP senators are beginning to come to grips that Trump’s reign in Washington could soon come to an end.
Publicly and privately, Republicans are now beginning to distance themselves from the President. And the debate over the post-Trump Republican Party is already taking shape, with some eager to emulate his populist style of America-first, slash-and-burn politics – and others pushing to return to a more moderate, pro-business message to woo disaffected younger voters and women who have been put off by Trump.
While Republicans brace for that debate, several influential Republicans are pleading with Trump to abruptly change his tactics in the final two weeks to zero-in on an economic message, stop downplaying the coronavirus pandemic and to quit launching attacks against his public health experts – namely Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I would like to see in the closing days of the campaign him prosecute the argument against the Democrats and the difference in policies,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip, told CNN. “Stay away from personal attacks. Quit attacking the media. Quit attacking Fauci and focus on issues. … He’s got to stay disciplined to do it, and I think that’s how you’re going to win over the middle people.”
In recent weeks, Republicans have been critical of the President and some of his policies.
GOP leaders have strongly opposed calls by Trump to pass a stimulus plan worth more than $2 trillion. Some Republicans, like Texas Sen. John Cornyn, have made clear they haven’t always been on the same page with the President on issues like the national debt. And one GOP senator – Ben Sasse of Nebraska – launched a scathing attack about the President’s treatment of women and flirtation with white supremacists, warning about the ramifications for the Republican Party in a conference call with constituents leaked to the media.
“I think our party is in trouble with young people, increasingly with older people, with minorities. And those young people we were in trouble with five years ago are now voting, and so we’ve got some real work to do,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee who isn’t backing Trump’s reelection bid, told CNN.
Republicans in tight races, who had hoped to ride the President’s coattails to victory, have little desire to align with Trump over his more incendiary attacks, including against Fauci, the respected infectious disease expert whom the President has been undermining in recent days and called a “disaster” during a call with campaign staff Monday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has tied himself closely to Trump amid his neck-and-neck reelection bid in South Carolina, was sympathetic to the President’s latest line of scorched-earth attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, because the President “has been accused of everything under the sun.”
But Graham added: “I think in terms of Dr. Fauci, I trust his judgment.”
Thom Tillis, a first-term senator from North Carolina and one of the most endangered Republicans, sided with the infectious disease expert when asked if he agreed that Fauci is a “disaster.”
“I got a lot of confidence in Dr. Fauci,” Tillis said.
Indeed, some GOP senators in difficult races are sounding a different message about the pandemic, as Trump claims that the US is “rounding the turn,” despite evidence to the contrary.
“We’re seeing huge spikes in Montana right now,” said GOP Sen. Steve Daines, facing a tough race the state, when asked about Trump’s attacks on Fauci. “We need to stay focused now in stopping this pandemic.”
Given the upset that Trump pulled off in 2016, Republicans are careful not to predict that Trump will lose on November 3 – and many say they believe he will win again. But Republicans are well aware of the narrow path he has to victory – and how bleak the polls look for the President, who is trailing in nine of 10 states he carried four years ago, according to a CNN average of polls released Tuesday.
GOP braces for ‘fight’ over a post-Trump Washington
Republicans say if Trump loses reelection, they expect a furious debate within the party about the direction to take the GOP after the President has rewritten the rules of politics and dramatically reshaped the conservative base to fit his image of America.
“I think there’s going to be a fight after this election,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, referring to an intraparty debate bound to take place regardless of the electoral outcome. He predicted “the old guard” in the GOP would want “open borders, trade without limits” and will seek cater to Wall Street and “big multinationals” who are pushing to expand globalization.
Hawley added: “I just think that will be a disaster for this party.”
Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican who, like Hawley, won his first term in 2018, said voters still distrust government and that the party would need to refocus on the frustration with Washington that got Trump elected in the first place.
“I think in totality even if it doesn’t end up good for us, it still reverts back to what was there before Trump,” Braun said.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is among those Republicans warning against the high price tag in the stimulus talks that the President has proposed, has been in line with others in his party who have embraced calls to focus again on the ballooning budget deficit – after years of Congress and the White House ignoring the issue with Trump in office. The annual deficit and total debt has hit levels not seen since World War II.
“I came from the tea party: We are concerned,” Johnson said, referring to the conservative grassroots movement that powered GOP victories in the Obama years but has been mostly quiet in the Trump era. “At some point in time, the tea party may not be as strong as it once was but there’s still plenty of people like me and a lot of people that voted for people like me that are highly concerned about the fact that we’re mortgaging our kids’ future.”
Asked if he believes Trump should listen to those concerns, Johnson said: “You’d have to ask him.”
After Romney lost in 2012 to Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee conducted an extensive autopsy to improve the GOP appeal, looking at ways to diversify and court Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minority communities, while wooing women and LGBTQ voters. One of the changes, the RNC suggested, was to “embrace and champion” comprehensive immigration reform.
In 2013, Republicans joined Democrats in pushing a bipartisan immigration overhaul through the Senate – but the effort never came up for a vote in the GOP-led House. In 2014, Republicans took back the Senate amid GOP promises to be a check on Obama, rein in the deficit and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And that was all a prelude to Trump’s rise to the Presidency, as he mounted an anti-immigration, anti-trade and anti-Washington campaign.
“I look at my race back in 2012 and there was a postmortem done about what we would do to get our party back in line with more of our voters,” Romney said this week in the Capitol. “And we haven’t taken that direction.”
Republican fears Trump’s down-ticket impact
As he’s trailing Biden in crucial battleground states, Trump’s standing in the polls has been the cause of alarm among Republicans, who are struggling to hold on to their 53-47 majority as Democrats see their opportunities to pick up seats continue to grow.
Trump, speaking to reporters in Arizona on Monday, said that he believes the Senate races are “very untied” to him.
“I think that’s highly overrated,” Trump insisted.
And GOP leaders hope that their candidates have established enough of a track record and brand that they can win over Biden voters down the stretch and differentiate themselves from Trump.
Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN that “the most important dynamic” in the battle for the Senate majority in the final weeks is the “differing agendas” between the parties.
“You have Democratic candidates who are running on this new version of American socialism, which involves major structural changes like packing the Supreme Court, eliminating the legislative filibuster and then adding new states to the union,” Young said. “Whereas we’re focused instead on returning us to the heights of prosperity.”
When asked if Trump should stay on that message to help Senate candidates, Young responded: “I’m not going to advise anyone else how to run their campaigns.”
In Maine, Trump has gone after endangered GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who hasn’t said if she’d back the President’s reelection but has said she’d oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court because the confirmation vote is being pushed up against the election.
“Not worth the work!” Trump tweeted last week after launching a broadside against Collins.
Trump’s standing in Maine, a blue state, has hurt Collins, who had developed an independent image for 20 years in the Senate before he took power. When Vice President Mike Pence rallied in Maine on Monday, he failed to mention Collins. Instead, Pence thanked the men who introduced him, Dale Crafts, a GOP House candidate, and former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who is expected to run again in 2022.
Collins was not at the Pence event, and an aide said she had flown back to Washington on Sunday to attend Monday evening’s votes in the Senate.
Other Republicans have made remarks that have gotten attention in recent days, including Cornyn, who told the Fort Worth Star Telegram editorial board that he had privately clashed with the administration on several issues, including on budget deficits, trade agreements and redirecting some of the military budget to build Trump’s wall. And he compared his relationship to Trump to “maybe like a lot of women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.”
When asked about those comments on Monday, Cornyn told reporters: “It’s the same thing I’ve been saying for a couple of years now. When I have disagreements with the President, I keep those private conversations, and I found it to be pretty useful in terms of trying to keep things done and manage that relationship.”
Indeed, Cornyn, who is narrowly leading his race for reelection, has sought to avoid criticizing Trump over the last four years. After Trump’s rocky performance at last month’s presidential debate, Cornyn was speaking to two reporters about a range of topics. But when asked about Trump’s refusal at the debate to disavow white supremacists, Cornyn abruptly ended the back-and-forth.
“I’m done. See ya later,” Cornyn said as he walked through the halls of the Russell Senate Office Building.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Angie Trindade contributed to this report.