Sometimes they believe it and sometimes they don’t, and some party leaders are harder to defend than others. But right now we’re seeing something remarkable: Republican candidates who have strapped themselves to President Trump are paying a price, even in some heavily Republican areas.
So we see the laughable spectacle of Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is trying to win her multicandidate race in Georgia by presenting herself as almost maniacally conservative, saying, “I’m not familiar with that” when asked about the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about committing sexual assault. You probably remember it, even if Loeffler doesn’t.
Then there’s Sen. Martha McSally getting humiliated by Trump at a rally in Arizona. “Just come up, fast. Fast. Fast. Come on. Quick,” Trump said, beckoning her to the lectern. “You got one minute! One minute, Martha! They don’t want to hear this, Martha. Come on. Let’s go. Quick, quick, quick quick.”
Like Loeffler, McSally was appointed to fill a vacancy after a seat came open and is now trying to win in her own right. And like Georgia, Arizona was safely Republican just a short time ago but is now a battleground state.
Trump is affecting every race all the way down the ballot, and to be clear, the effect isn’t always negative for Republicans. Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), for instance, transformed herself from a moderate Republican into a Trump cheerleader and has been rewarded with $11 million in contributions and a strong position in her upstate, heavily White and rural district.
But the higher a Republican’s profile and the more they’re seen as a Trump ally, the more they rouse the ire of a mobilized Democratic base. No one knows that more than Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), whose lickspittlery toward Trump knows no equal. His opponent, Jaime Harrison, had raised a stunning $107 million by mid-October, more than any Senate candidate in history, simply because Democrats everywhere loathe Graham. Polls show the race dead-even, in a state Trump won in 2016 by 14 points.
The biggest problem these candidates face isn’t just that Trump is polarizing and unpopular. In some places, such as South Carolina, that might not matter much, since there are enough loyal Republicans to bring a GOP candidate to victory. The problem is that in the race’s closing days, Trump will only make things harder for them.
We see it in that cringeworthy moment with McSally, where Trump just couldn’t keep his rampaging ego and lack of a filter between brain and mouth in check. But more importantly, Trump is spending the remaining days of his campaign reminding everyone of the things they don’t like about him: denying the reality of a pandemic that has already killed over 227,000 Americans and is increasing in strength, putting his corruption on display, babbling about Hunter Biden, and whining about the media.
None of that helps you if you’re a down-ballot candidate. And Trump couldn’t care less. He might understand on an intellectual level that it’s better for him if Republicans win the Senate (though neither he nor they have any legislation they’re eager to pass), but at the moment all that’s occupying him is self-preservation, and he is unable to be rational about all that down-ballot stuff. In some other universe he might spend the final days convincing voters that he can be responsible and competent, but this is not that universe.
Which leaves Republicans in tight races with nowhere to turn. They can’t distance themselves from him lest they alienate their constituents who love him. But they can’t embrace him either — especially when he’s descending into lunacy — lest they alienate swing voters.
So when Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.) blurted out that “the best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate,” he articulated an argument that many other Republicans probably wish they could make. But they can’t.
With five whole days between now and Election Day, it’s all but guaranteed that Trump will say and do things that make other Republicans’ task more difficult. And in the end, some of them may find that they sold their souls by standing behind him, but wound up losing their careers anyway.