Trump’s ability to shape cultural flash points also appears to have ebbed, as some Republican leaders and legions of large corporations are openly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, despite risking retaliation from the White House.
Meanwhile, few Trump allies have been willing to embrace some of the president’s more extreme views, such as his baseless suggestion on Tuesday that a 75-year-old man seen in a viral video last week bleeding from the ear after being shoved by police in Buffalo was a radical provocateur faking his injury.
Perhaps emboldened by Trump’s diminished standing, not to mention their own outrage over his conduct, some Republicans have acted in outright opposition to the president, led by a number of prominent retired military leaders as well as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
But there is no sign yet of a mass exodus from the runaway Trump train. If anything, most elected Republicans see themselves as prisoners onboard, calculating that jumping off would lead to almost certain defeat, according to interviews with more than a dozen party strategists, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
Conversations at the highest ranks of the party have reached what one veteran operative called the “acceptance phase of grieving,” where “there is an understanding that he’s president until at least November, and there is not much we can do about it.”
Most of the Republican officeholders standing for reelection are counting on Trump’s core supporters to turn out — and after weathering more than 3½ years of political storms, they see no advantage in breaking with the president now.
“There’s no middle ground to run to anymore,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to the past two Republican House speakers, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and John Boehner of Ohio. “I continue to believe that there’s really no political upside to running away from [Trump]. You gain nothing and you raise the ire of not just the president but people who support him.”
Still, some vulnerable Republican incumbents are looking for ways to distance themselves from Trump. Leading Republican consultants and lawmakers privately concede that winning back control of the House is unlikely, and they are increasingly concerned that a weakened Trump atop the ticket could jeopardize the GOP’s 53-seat majority in the Senate, where Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and other incumbents face steep climbs.
Strategists over the past week have suggested myriad ways embattled incumbents could tiptoe around Trump’s rolling controversies, as opposed to embracing them, according to participants in private discussions and conference calls with donors, many of which are informal check-ins and catch-up sessions due to the pandemic.
“It’s subtle stuff, like maybe your senator should try to duck Kasie Hunt in the hallway,” one of the strategists said, referring to the NBC News correspondent whose on-camera questioning of Republican senators last week over the use of military force against peaceful protesters was widely replayed. “It’s all about operating outside of the tumult of the moment with him, but leaving yourself in a position for him to rally for you this fall.”
This operative continued: “Look — no one can afford at this point to get on the wrong side of Trump. But you can kind of play it cool and don’t have to comment on everything he does.”
Haunting the senators and their advisers is the experience of former senators such as Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire who spoke out against Trump’s “Access Hollywood” comments bragging about sexually assault and went on to lose her 2016 reelection race, according to advisers close to several senators.
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in response to the concerns, “The greatest threat to the GOP Senate majority is hand-wringing consultants who shouldn’t be hired to walk a dog let alone consult on a U.S. Senate race.”
Josh Holmes, a senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said: “It’s such a dynamic atmosphere that making political decisions, particularly rash political decisions, are guaranteed to be regrettable. If the next five months are like the last five months, then no one has any idea what the environment will be like in November.”
Trump has trailed Biden by an average of eight percentage points in national polling over the past week and a half, according to an analysis by RealClearPolitics. Recent polls also show Trump losing to Biden in head-to-head matchups in a number of battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, which surveyed registered voters nationally from May 25-28, showed Biden leading Trump 53 percent to 43 percent. The two candidates had been in a virtual dead heat two months earlier.
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who frequently leads focus groups, said Trump’s strident rhetoric about crime the past week is likely to hurt him with the voters he needs to expand his base of support.
“He’s isolated linguistically,” Luntz said. “He’s talking about ‘law and order.’ The last time I heard that was the 1968 campaign. His rhetoric is 50 years old. The world has changed. … He’s got 40 percent of the country completely enthralled with him.” But, he added, “This is not a lexicon that gets you elected. This is a lexicon that gets you to 45 percent and not more.”
Trump has become obsessed with polling and lashes out at those who say he is losing to Biden, according to two White House officials and a longtime Trump ally.
A CNN survey released Monday showing Trump at a 14 percentage point deficit to Biden caused considerable alarm within the Republican Party and led the president to instruct one of his campaign pollsters, John McLaughlin, to write a public memo refuting the findings.
Trump wrote on Twitter that he thought the CNN survey and others were “FAKE based on the incredible enthusiasm we are receiving.” He added, “Despite 3½ years of phony Witch Hunts, we are winning, and will close it out on November 3rd!”
White House officials said they have privately counseled Republican candidates and their advisers to stay calm, and pointed to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll this week that showed Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent, down one percentage point from April. They said they argued that despite everything that’s going on, the president’s approval rating fell only one percentage point — although that same recent survey showed Trump trailing Biden by seven percentage points.
The officials pointed out that Trump is performing better than some at-risk GOP incumbents, such as McSally, who trails Democrat Mark Kelly by double digits in most surveys, while Trump trails Biden by single digits in Arizona.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said: “Any candidate who wants to win will stand strong with President Trump, who has a record approval rating in the Republican Party and has united the Republican Party. They will need that enthusiasm in order to win.”
Trump’s team and other Republicans also are buoyed by the May unemployment rate of 13.3 percent as an indication that the economy may be recovering. Polls have consistently shown that voters see Trump’s handling of the economy as one of his appealing attributes.
“The most important data point is that Trump is leading Biden on the economy,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He cited a Fox News poll in late May that showed Trump beating Biden on the economy, although it also had more voters trusting Biden than Trump to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
“By Labor Day, if we have a growing economy and a vaccination for first responders, Trump is going to have some real momentum,” Reed said. “That Fox number on the economy is what this election is going to be about. Yes, it’s a referendum on Trump, but if the economy is roaring back, it’ll benefit Trump.”
Republicans also are counting on Trump to help define Biden and the Democrats as extremist. The latest effort has been to link the party to the “defund the police” movement on the left, although Biden on Monday said he did not support cutting police funding.
“Republicans look at what’s happening in this country and they see Maoism in action,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a Trump ally. They frame the election as “a choice between Trump and something that would radically change America. For all of Trump’s challenges, that alternative is unthinkable.”
Across the political map, GOP candidates are trying to avoid being dragged into Trump’s day-to-day battles and grievances. They tend to offer positive, if vague, comments about the president before turning to other issues that help them localize their races.
The latest ad from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) concentrates on his working-class roots and the economy. “My job is fighting for your job,” he says in the spot. “We will build this economy back, and I’ll remember who needs it the most.” Trump does not appear.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has stayed friendly with Trump but has tried to showcase an independent streak by touting last month how she “pressed” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Trump appointee, about ethanol.
When a reporter asked Gardner on Tuesday about Trump’s tweet about the Buffalo protester seen on video pushed to the ground, he said he had not seen it. The senator said he was busy working on the Great American Outdoors Act, an infrastructure bill.
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who is working on polling and strategy for a soon-to-be-announced anti-Trump campaign initiative, said it would look cynical if Republican lawmakers broke with Trump this late into his presidency.
“The escape tunnel caved in a year ago,” Murphy said. “So they carry on, and some of the people who are not up for reelection this year are just waiting for the year to be over. It’s a party that has been trapped and is now full of fatalism.”