Texan Senator John Cornyn is among a growing number of Senate Republicans who have begun to highlight their disagreements with President Donald Trump in surprisingly competitive re-election races.
"If I have a disagreement that I have, I do it privately," Cornyn said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial team, published on Sunday, claiming he had previously encountered Trump over border security and budget deficits. Cornyn's interview comes shortly after the leaked audio recording of Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who criticized Trump while speaking with constituents this week.
"I don't think the way it is run through Covid was sensible or responsible or right," Sasse said in an audio obtained from the Washington Examiner. "The United States is now regularly selling out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women and impersonates a drunken sailor."
And both follow comments from Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) who avoided saying whether she was “proud” of her support for Trump in an October debate, and longstanding statements from Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) declined consistently from saying who to vote for in November.
Overall, these remarks suggest a broader trend for Republicans to do what many GOP lawmakers have long since stopped wanting: to signal a break with Trump.
These efforts to distance yourself and the president come from the fact that voters' aversion to Trump appears to threaten the most important seats in the Republican Senate. Cornyn, Sasse, McSally and Collins are all running for re-election. Of the four, only Sasse's seat is considered secure, in part because Trump has ousted more moderate Republicans from the party in several battlefield states.
Even states like Cornyns, seen as Republican strongholds, offer opportunities for Democrats: Cornyn, for example, faces a contest against Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who the Cook Political Report has classified as a "Lean Republican". As a result, some members of the GOP appear more willing to speak out against some of the president's political positions when fighting for their own re-election.
As expectations that Trump will be re-elected begin to sway, more Republicans appear to be planning what comes next.
"You have a good chance of winning the White House," Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close ally of Trump, told his Democratic counterparts during the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett last year Week.
Republicans now speaking out against Trump – as well as those like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY), who rely on their fiscal conservative good faith and contradict Trump's calls for a more expansive incentive bill – could set up for a post-Trump party.
Swing state Republicans could be hurt by their Trump connections
Many swing state Republicans in places like Arizona, Iowa, and Colorado have faced a difficult balancing act: they had to coordinate closely with Trump to win the support of their conservative base, but these very ties are violating them now in the U.S. general election as independents – and even some moderate Republicans – are moving away from the president.
For example, in Arizona, Trump's approval rates have plummeted and his disapproval has risen from 35 percent to 48 percent since January 2017, according to a Morning Consult tracker. Over the same period, Trump's disapproval rate rose from 40 percent to 51 percent in Iowa and from 44 percent to 55 percent in Colorado.
As a result, some Republicans might find it beneficial for their campaigns to demonstrate some disconnection from Trump, especially if the public health and economic impact of the pandemic persists.
It remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient. While Cornyn Hegar is currently ahead of averages, other Republican senators are doing badly – for example, Collins is 4.2 percentage points behind their rival and McSally is 8.3 percentage points behind their Democratic opponent, according to RealClearPolitics.
Sasse didn't seem optimistic about the GOP's chances in his remarks, arguing that negative sentiment towards Trump this fall could lead to a “Republican bloodbath”.
Some Republicans could also take a look at the post-Trump news they would use
Trump doesn't do well in polls either – Democratic candidate Joe Biden has led him into double digits in a few recent polls. These numbers have led the president to publicly consider losing the election.
As Bloomberg's Steven Dennis wrote, Republican lawmakers, including Sasse and Cruz, appear to be among those preparing for a potential Biden presidency in which they would be vocal fiscal hawks.
One way she and other Senate Republicans have been doing over the past few months is to be more firm against spending additional pandemic stimulus spending, undoing Trump's recent "make it big" demands, and her own tight bill for one Vote to be submitted this week. The Republicans' movement in this direction suggests the possibility that they could once again give more support to fiscal conservatism if Biden becomes president.
As the endangered Republican Senator Thom Tillis recently told Politico, "The best control for a Biden presidency is that Republicans have a majority in the Senate." Whether they distance themselves from Trump or not, that majority seems to be seriously at risk right now.
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