The Fate of the Senate Is Up to Trump
Senate Democrats liked former President Barack Obama, but never feared him; Senate Republicans fear incumbent President Donald Trump, but don’t necessarily like him. Should Trump lose the election in November, any grieving inside GOP offices could be short-lived—no more having to defend an unpopular president whose handling of the pandemic has distressed many Americans. “I don’t think there’s a lot of love for Trump; people tolerate him,” said one Senate Republican aide, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the president.
More alarming for Senate Republicans would be losing their slim majority. A scenario in which Trump is sent home to Mar-a-Lago while Republicans retain control of the upper chamber would be not only palatable, the aide said, but maybe even preferable.
And yet, that’s not likely to happen. Trump’s fate is yoked to that of Senate Republicans, whose fragile majority likely depends on his reelection. Put simply, vulnerable Republican senators are in a bind: They need to win the backing of Trump’s enthusiastic base without driving away more independent voters who are an important part of a winning coalition. They want the energy Trump creates, but not the divisiveness. What the past four years have shown is, you don’t get one without the other.
Trump has made the presidency about himself, and now the same is largely true for Senate races. Splitting the ticket—voting for one party in the presidential race and another in down-ballot contests—has grown vanishingly rare in recent decades. Every state with a Senate election that Trump carried in 2016 also chose the Republican candidate, while each state with a Senate election that Hillary Clinton won picked the Democrat. That pattern should hold in 2020, reinforced by Trump’s ubiquity. “Everyone puts most candidates in two buckets: pro-Trump or anti-Trump. That’s it,” a former senior White House official told me.
Republicans start at a disadvantage. They’re defending nearly twice as many seats as their opposition while holding a narrow 53–47 majority. Democrats need to pick up three seats should Joe Biden defeat Trump. (Biden’s future vice president would cast any tie-breaking votes.) If the president wins, Democrats would need to gain four seats to take control. Some of the party’s juiciest targets are GOP senators from battleground states where Trump appears most vulnerable: Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Polling shows that Trump is trailing Biden in each of the four except North Carolina, where he leads by only a point.
Republicans looking to improve their chances face a tricky set of options. A classic strategy employed by lawmakers running down ballot is to create some distance from a weakened president and carve an identity that might appeal even to his detractors. Obama told Democratic lawmakers to do just that in the 2010 midterm elections, when his job-approval ratings had been sinking. “You may not even want me to come to your district,” Obama said to a group of legislators over lunch at the White House that summer. He was fine with that; he wanted them to win and to do what was necessary to make it happen. In the most competitive races this cycle, Republicans may try this tact, separating themselves from Trump by minimizing mention of him. But it won’t be easy. Trump is sensitive to slights and wants unwavering obeisance.
“The president does demand pretty much 100 percent loyalty,” Jeff Flake, a former GOP senator from Arizona who was at the receiving end of Trump’s attacks before his retirement last year, told me. “He can pick up the phone and generate a primary pretty fast against anyone who strays. And senators know that.”
Trump is also temperamentally incapable of staying away, even though that might be best for some of the Republican senatorial candidates who are imperiled. It’s not always helpful to have him grandly exiting Air Force One in a swing state and seizing the spotlight. His appearances could remind still-undecided voters of the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll, the testing snafus, and the months he spent downplaying the danger.
Since 2016, Trump has especially alienated suburban women voters, who’ve been put off by his rhetoric. Yet even if Trump doesn’t believe he needs these voters to win reelection, his Senate allies likely do. “In almost all these states where Republicans are at risk, the election turns on, primarily, independent women voters,” Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, told me. “But they are very frustrated and antagonized by the president’s character. And so they’re in play. No question about it.”
“They like his policies; they really are turned off by his tweets,” Sarah Chamberlain, the CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate Republican advocacy group, told me. (There’s a rich history of the president’s allies trying to get him to stop—please, stop—tweeting. Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me that Trump called him in 2017 about a vote on the federal budget. As they were getting ready to hang up, Trump asked, Do you have any advice for me? Cole suggested he tweet less. “Ain’t gonna happen,” Trump replied, adding that he can reach millions of Americans through social media in seconds.)
Unnerving even to some of Trump’s political advisers was his string of daily news conferences on COVID-19, where he dispensed grievances, gave dubious medical advice, and, in the process, helped make himself the face of the federal government’s flawed response. “What might have tipped the scales a little bit [against Trump] was the whole thing about, ‘Can we inject or swallow disinfectant?’” Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat facing a tough reelection bid, told me. “I’ve got moms and dads out there who all of a sudden are covering their children’s ears because they teach them to stay away from things like that!”
Some vulnerable GOP senators have already been trying to telegraph independence from Trump. A 30-second ad released by Gardner last week, for example, includes no mention of the president, who lost Colorado in 2016. The ad boasts that Gardner procured masks for Coloradans from South Korea, but it’s silent on the ventilators he got from Trump. (The president happily tweeted last month that he’d sent the state 100 such machines at Gardner’s request.) Instead, the ad features testimonials from Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, about the cooperation he’s gotten from Gardner in handling the pandemic.
Across the country in Maine, Collins has sided with Trump when it’s mattered most to him, voting against both impeachment articles this year, and voting to confirm his embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, in 2018. At various times, she’s tut-tutted about Trump’s behavior. But her mild rebukes may not be enough to convince her coalition that she’s a brake on the president, who’s demolished the traditional safeguards used to hold his administration accountable. Most recently, she’s objected to his firing of government inspectors general. That in itself underscores the challenge Collins could face with voters. After Trump was acquitted on two impeachment counts, Collins famously said that he had learned “a pretty big lesson.” Clearly he hadn’t.
“All of these things have put her in the most danger that she’s ever been in,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me.
A more circumspect president might avoid Maine, lest he put Collins in the awkward position of having to campaign with him or explain why she won’t. But he’ll be back, a Trump-campaign adviser told me. He won a precious electoral vote in Maine four years ago, and in a tight race, one electoral vote counts for something. “I have to think, right now, in states like Maine and Colorado, the president is a liability,” Charlie Dent, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania and a CNN commentator, told me. “They can’t rely on the Republican base to carry them across the finish line. How does the president help [Collins and Gardner] with swing voters? He simply throws more red meat to the base, and then doubles down.”
The coronavirus outbreak sidelined Trump for a time, but his staff has been thinking through ways to get him back on the campaign trail. They’ve talked about holding smaller rallies in airplane hangars, which would make it easier for the president to cover more ground by quickly moving him in and out of states, one senior administration official told me. No doubt Trump is eager to resurrect his ego-gratifying rallies and return to the contested swing states that are crucial to his reelection. But a better way to help himself—and the Senate GOP—might be to actually show results that could be meaningful to voters: an economic rebound, a pronounced drop in COVID-19 cases, an effective vaccine. “The last thing he wants is to win and have a Democratic Senate,” Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist, told me. “It was bad enough for him to get impeached by a Democratic House.”