Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he hasn’t been to the White House since August 6.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to drift away from President Donald Trump in the final weeks of the 2020 election even as the pair barrel toward filling a third U.S. Supreme Court seat.
McConnell speculated last week about the time period after Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s expected confirmation later this month when the GOP might face 2021 fight against possible Democratic efforts to “pack the court” with more justices should former Vice President Joe Biden win the White House.
“Believe me, they’ll do it if they can,” McConnell told reporters when voting early in Kentucky on Thursday. “If I’m the majority leader, it will not come up.”
The comment underscored how he views the Republican-controlled Senate as a last line of defense, according to those within his advisory orbit. At the time same, however, a Biden presidency represents a chance at a final and larger legacy that could spawn major bipartisan deals.
“It’s not like Biden can’t do business with a Republican Senate,” a GOP strategist who is working closely with McConnell in 2020, told USA Today. “In fact there’s a track record of him being able to do that with McConnell.”
Of course, that’s if Republicans, who hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate, can hold onto the chamber.
Recent polls and independent analyses show Democrats with a better than 50-50 chance of flipping the necessary number of seats (three if Biden wins, four if Trump does) to retake the upper chamber.
Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said Democrats are “the clear favorite” to win back the Senate. And a GOP strategist who focuses on congressional races called the political environment “very difficult … across the map” for Republicans due to years of Trump’s tweets, his behavior and, more recently, his widely panned debate performance late last month.
McConnell is adept at giving subtle signals as much as following the political winds, and lately that has meant showing that he isn’t joined at the hip to the president, such as when he called out the White House for its lax COVID-19 restrictions.
During the lone debate against Amy McGrath, his 2020 Democratic challenger, McConnell at several times shouted out Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has a tense relationship with Trump and his base.
Spokesman David Popp said in an email Thursday political observers shouldn’t read much into those comments, but others close to McConnell say he is aware of a 2020 electoral canyon for Republicans.
“A lot of our people who are suburban Republican voters aren’t huge Trump fans and they aren’t turned off by Biden in the way they may have been by Hillary Clinton,” the McConnell source said. “Remember, the economy benefits from stability in Washington so they’re making a vote for stability in this country. But also they don’t want to trade four years of Trump craziness for four years of socialist craziness.”
Escaping the president’s shadow
With Election Day less than three weeks away, McConnell and other Senate Republicans have taken more deliberate steps to distance themselves from Trump.
The majority leader said recently he hadn’t been to the White House for weeks because of lax coronavirus protocols, a revelation that seemed to undercut the president’s message that he deserves “an A-plus” for his handling of the pandemic.
It’s a balancing act for Republican Senate candidates running for re-election in battleground states who need the GOP base to win as well as a significant share of independents who may be turned off by Trump’s rhetoric, behavior and policies.
More: Trump, Biden dueling town halls gave voters a different view of the candidatesLately, they’ve been trying to escape the president’s shadow.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is trying to win a second term in a state Trump won in 2016 by nearly 4 percentage points but where polls showed the president now trailing Biden by a similar margin.
So it was not unusual to see Tillis recently try to appeal to both groups recently, said Taylor who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
He was quick out of the gate to back Trump’s move to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death last month of Ruth Bader Ginsburg seat, giving his support even before Barrett was chosen as the nominee. Then last week the Tar Heel state Republican threw shade on the president by telling Politico he’s running to be “a check on a Biden presidency.”
When Sen. Martha McSally, of Arizona, was asked during an Oct. 6 debate with Democratic challenger Mark Kelly whether she was “proud of her support for President Trump,” she responded that she was “proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans.”
In Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican majority whip, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that Trump had “let his guard down” on the coronavirus and that the president’s rhetoric has created “confusion” that has hurt efforts to confront the pandemic.
“It just shows that these senators are pulled in two different directions,” Taylor said. “They can’t irritate the very conservative Trump base but they also need independents to win the general election. It’s a no-win situation for them in many regards.”
McConnell helps GOP on a Trump tightrope
McConnell, known for bringing home the political bacon to Kentucky, looked to give GOP colleagues a way out when he announced the Senate’s schedule was shifting.
Lawmakers, he said, are returning to Washington next week to take up a $500 billion relief bill that seems to be a guaranteed dead on arrival proposal for House Democrats, who have held fast to their $2.2 trillion proposal.
The timing of the GOP bill came a day after McConnell was criticized by McGrath, his Democratic challenger, about the results of his influence amid the coronavirus pandemic during Monday’s debate.
“His one job is to help America through this crisis right now in passing legislation to keep our economy afloat so that people can make ends meet,” McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, said. “Instead of doing that, he is trying to ram through a Supreme Court nominee right now.”
McConnell blamed Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the lack of a deal during the debate, but McGrath pounced on the comment.
“You’re hearing it all night long: More excuses,” she responded. “He’s the Senate majority leader, and he still can’t get it done.”
McConnell is leading McGrath by double-digits in most polls, but his GOP colleagues face a tougher road ahead that could cost the party its majority in the Senate. Passing a new COVID-19 aid package would give them something to spotlight as the pandemic continues to batter the U.S. economy.
But Trump immediately undercut McConnell’s modest relief proposal , writing on Twitter that any stimulus to deal with COVID-19 must: “Go big or go home!!!”
The president went further when he indicated on Fox Business News that he would be willing to raise the price if necessary to get a deal done.
“Absolutely I would,” Trump said. “I would say more. I would go higher.”
McConnell threw cold water on the president’s call for a costlier aid package, however, telling reporters in Kentucky that Trump is “talking about a much larger amount that I can sell to my members.”
Trump’s short coattails
As a general rule, presidential candidates have coattails that help down-ballot candidates of their own party because they help expand the participation of like-minded voters.
But that wasn’t the case in 2016 with Trump.
Four years ago, a number of senators publicly disavowed Trump, many of them breaking with him over the Hollywood Access tape in which the then-reality show star Trump was caught on a hot mic bragging about groping women.
After the tape came out, three GOP senators who are seeking re-election this year, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Ben Sasse in Nebraska and Dan Sullivan in Alaska, said they wouldn’t vote for him.
With Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton ahead in the polls, some Republicans wagered that Trump would not win the White House and would not be in a position to exact retribution. Since his 2016, though, Trump has solidified his grip on the GOP. The most recent Gallup poll has 92% of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing.
Of 33 states that also had a Senate race four years ago, 23 Republicans running for Senate got a higher percentage of votes than Trump. Of those 23, 17 were states the Republican won, suggesting that the Senate candidate helped the president win that state.
More than half of those 17 states are swing states that will likely decide the presidency this year: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In 2020, the Cook Political Report identifies 12 of 23 GOP senate seats up for election as competitive: two (Arizona and Colorado) that “lean Democrat;” seven (two in Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, and South Carolina) that are competitive; and three (Alaska, Kansas and Texas) that “lean Republican.”
Conversely, Cook rates just two of the 12 Democratic seats as in play: Alabama (lean Republican) and Michigan (lean Democratic).
The McConnell adviser said their internal polling for months has shown Senate GOP candidates outpacing Trump in some contests such as Iowa, Maine and Colorado.
Trump is still outperforming Republican Senate candidates in several states, including South Carolina where Lindsey Graham is in a surprisingly close race with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. But the president’s sagging popularity in the Palmetto State, which he won by 14 points in 2016 but only leads by single digits now, has spilled over into the Senate race, Taylor said.
‘You’re along for the ride’
Sasse, who is considered a safe bet for reelection in 2020, slammed Trump during a call with constituents this week, saying he “kisses dictators’ butts” and has “flirted with white supremacists.”
The Nebraska Republican was answering a constituent’s question about his relationship with Trump, and the senator’s past criticism of the president.
“The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores that the Uyghurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang right now. He hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong Kongers,” Sasse said during a call with some 17,000 constituents.
“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticized President (Barack) Obama for that kind of spending, I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”
Sasse’s jabs at Trump drew national headlines. But Republicans who try to distance themselves from the president and his sagging approval ratings aren’t expected to see much benefit, analysts said.
“There’s no world where distance actually works. It’s kind of like you’re along for the ride,” the GOP strategist who focuses on congressional contests said.
“You create the distance, you don’t gain anything from independents because they associate you and the Republican Party with Trump, and you lose support among your core constituencies – the base voters – that want to see you defend the party’s nominee, the party’s president. It’s an unenviable situation for a lot of Republicans running in 2020.”
Problems for a GOP Senate veteran
Few GOP senators have had to navigate the Trump presidency like Susan Collins of Maine, who is seeking a fifth term.
A self-described moderate, she has criticized the president’s rhetoric on racial justice and condemned the administration’s removal of protesters outside the White House in June. But she voted against his impeachment, supported his tax cut bill in 2017 and voted for his two previous Supreme Court nominees: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Her vote in 2018 to confirm Kavanaugh still rankles moderates and Democrats. But she might have quelled some of that anger with her announcement last month – before Trump nominated Barrett – that she would not vote for Ginsburg’s successor this close to an election.
Polls show her slightly behind Democratic challenger Sarah Gideon in a state Trump lost narrowly four years ago and, according to polls, he could lose in November by double digits.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono, said he thinks she still has a “good chance” to win in what has become her closest election ever. But Trump is a double-edged sword for Collins, as he is for other GOP senators in battleground states, he said.
“She has to be careful,” Brewer said, adding that Collins has to keep the GOP base behind her while still attracting independents and moderate Democrats who carried her to victory in past elections.
“She needs to wring out every last Republican vote, but at the same time, those voters (alone) aren’t enough to get her re-elected. So, she still needs to be able to appeal to a big chunk of (independent) voters,” Brewer said. “And for at least some of those voters, being too close to Donald Trump is problematic. She’s got to try and thread that needle. There’s no way to do that perfectly. The question is can she do it well enough to squeak by.”
Friday morning, Trump made threading that needle even tougher when he tweeted about a “nasty rumor” that Collins would not support Barrett’s nomination.
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann
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