Republican lawmakers are increasingly fearful that Donald Trump won’t be getting another term in the White House, and with that real possibility, as well as the threat of losing the GOP majority in the Senate, many are distancing themselves from Trump as a self-preservation move.
Under Trump, GOP lawmakers have allowed their political careers to be determined by the president. Their alignment with Donald Trump, and their unwavering support of even the most questionable Trumpian moves has all but guaranteed the votes of their Trump-supporting constituents. To criticize Trump, or to disagree with him, could ignite his vengeance in the form of bullying, mocking, incendiary tweets, and ultimately, lost votes. During Trump’s presidency, they have, as a body, placed their loyalty to Donald Trump above their loyalty to country, and often above the good of their constituents.
From his handling of the coronavirus pandemic (including his own COVID-19 diagnosis), to his refusal to condemn white supremacist groups, to his increasingly erratic behavior, Trump’s actions and words have alienated many Republican and swing voters during this election season. Some Republican lawmakers who are up for re-election fear that alignment with the president could prove to be a liability for them, and consequently, many are changing their tactics.
“I think Trump might cause us a tidal wave. He is ankle weights in a pool on Senate candidates,” said a top Republican strategist and Trump supporter who asked not to be named, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Though these Republican lawmakers are distancing themselves from Trump, most aren’t willing to openly criticize him, for fear of losing the votes of those who are still staunch Trump supporters. It’s a tough spot, because they also need the votes of anti-Trump Republicans who would either stay home or get behind Biden.
One new GOP approach is to shift the emphasis away from the issue of loyalty to Trump, and instead try to persuade voters to imagine a threatening, doomsday scenario if Democrats win the Senate.
The Senate Conservative Fund has put out a fundraising message saying, “If we lose the Senate, there will be no firewall to stop the Democrats from implementing their ‘Armageddon’ plan to pack the courts with activist judges and to add four new Democrats to the Senate by giving statehood to DC and Puerto Rico.”
They talk of a hypothetical “Joe Biden’s America,” where the scourge of liberalism would infiltrate the land. They even threaten that a Biden presidency would usher in Socialism (or Communism).
“Let me tell you the nightmare scenario for our state,” said Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, in a debate with his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison. “If they keep the House, take over the Senate and Biden’s president, God help us all. … The most liberal agenda in the history of American politics is coming out of the House to the Senate.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appears to be nervous about losing to his popular Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath. McConnell has taken to trying to position himself as the key senator who could, as he did when Obama was president, prevent Democrats from furthering their “radical” agenda in Congress.
“The way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to keep me as the majority leader, the firewall against disaster,” said McConnell.
Arizona Senator Martha McSally has also tried to shift voters’ attention from her alliance with Trump. When the moderator asked McSally during a debate with Democratic opponent Mark Kelly if she was proud to serve under Donald Trump during her Air Force career, McSally wouldn’t directly answer, and instead replied, “I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes.”
When the moderator asked the question again, McSally continued to avoid answering the question.
Many Republican lawmakers, recognizing that Americans are disgusted and fearful about the way Trump has handled the coronavirus, have begun to criticize Trump’s mismanagement themselves.
Texas GOP Senator John Cornyn has berated Trump for his downplaying of the virus and its threat, saying Trump had “let his guard down.” Cornyn also commented that Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis should remind Americans to “exercise self-discipline.”
Cornyn’s words were a subtle criticism, but they go against Trump’s casual dismissal of the virus, and his refusal to wear a mask or practice social distancing, even after being diagnosed with COVID-19 himself.
On the day Trump left the hospital, still contagious, Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it rule your life.” At that point, more than 210,000 Americans had died from the virus.
Reacting to Trump’s tweet, as well as to his reckless behavior while still infectious, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who could lose her seat to Democrat Sarah Gideon, commented, “I couldn’t help but think that sent the wrong signal… I did not think that it set a good example at all.”
One of the most telling indicators of where Trump stands with voters, and the GOP’s awareness that Trump could be a liability, is a new Susan Collins campaign ad that urges Maine voters to vote for Collins “no matter who you’re voting for for president.”
Not all Republican lawmakers are so subtle, however. On Thursday, Nebraska GOP Senator Ben Sasse delivered a harsh and open criticism of Trump. Though Sasse has mostly supported Trump and his policies, he is one of the few sitting Republican senators who has criticized him from time to time.
During a campaign town hall phone call with constituents, a woman asked Sasse why he is so hard on the president.
“The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,” responded Sasse.
“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well,” Sasse continued. “He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”
Sasse added that he fears Trump’s “stupid political obsessions” and “rage tweeting” will drive voters away.
Though there have been indications that other Republican lawmakers feel similarly, it’s surprising (and, admittedly, refreshing) to finally hear a sitting GOP senator say it all out loud.
What is most striking (and what should be appalling to Republican constituents) as Republicans scramble to shift their positions in an attempt to win re-election is that it demonstrates that their careers are based less on serving the needs of their constituents, and more on simply keeping their seats in the game. Americans have always said that of politicians on both sides, but never, one could argue, has an entire body of American lawmakers been quite so willing to sacrifice their souls, and America’s well-being. Republican lawmakers, as Trump’s enablers, appear to have dug a hole for themselves that may be too deep to climb out of in time for re-election, even if they do distance themselves from Donald Trump.
US election: Senior republicans distance themselves from Trump |
Al Jazeerah English [2020-09-25]
Arizona Senator Martha McSally dodges Trump question during debate | CBS News [2020-10-08]