The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The center of the orbit’: Endangered Republicans go all-in on Trump

The Senate on Jan. 31 adopted Sen. Mitch McConnell’s resolution to vote on Feb. 3 whether to remove or acquit President Trump on impeachment charges. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)
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Many of the most endangered Republicans have concluded that fully embracing President Trump is their only credible path to victory in November, rallying to his side in the final days of the Senate impeachment fight and indulging his most controversial actions and statements.

At-risk Republicans — including those in battlegrounds such as Arizona, Colorado and Georgia — are calculating that a strong economy and an energized pro-Trump base will be enough to carry the party as it works to retain the White House and its Senate majority in 2020, according to interviews and private discussions with more than a dozen Republican senators, Senate aides and veteran strategists and officials.

More broadly, most Republicans have also largely jettisoned plans to break ranks with Trump to woo independents and suburban women, who turned on the party in 2018 and helped hand the House to the Democrats. This political positioning is driven in part by their view that Democrats are again poised to nominate a uniquely vulnerable presidential standard-bearer weighed down with ideological or establishment baggage.

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road other than dead possums and yellow lines,” said Will Ritter, co-founder of Poolhouse, a center-right ad agency. “Like no other president before, Republican voters want you to wrap yourself around Trump. There is no upside to doing any distancing.”

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) has concentrated in recent weeks on rallying base Republicans rather than appealing to moderates for her tough reelection fight, pushing for a swift acquittal in Trump’s impeachment trial while raising money off a feud with a CNN reporter she called “a liberal hack.” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is running for reelection in a state Hillary Clinton won by five points in 2016, came under attack by his likely Democratic opponent, former governor John Hickenlooper, after deciding against calling for impeachment witnesses and evidence this week.

And Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), facing a tough intraparty primary fight from Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), has gone all-in on supporting Trump in a state that Democrats are targeting for its growing diversity and booming Atlanta suburbs, including an attack this week on fellow Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for supporting the call for witnesses.

Loeffler, who has been personally friendly with Romney and who has donated to him in the past, accused him in a tweet of trying to “appease the left” and concluded: “The circus is over. It’s time to move on!”

Trump’s uncontested grip over his party came into focus again Friday as two key Republican senators — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is not up for reelection — supported the president by blocking Democratic attempts to extend the trial, couching their positions as driven by frustrations with Democrats. It will mark the first time in U.S. history that no witnesses will be called in a Senate impeachment proceeding.

“There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense,” Alexander said in a statement, arguing that while Trump had taken “actions that are inappropriate,” they did not merit his removal from office.

It was the most significant political move made by Senate Republicans this week: Their refusal to join Democrats in calling for additional evidence or witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, ensuring that it could wrap up in the coming days.

At the center of the calculation was Trump himself, and just how much Republicans feel they can distance themselves from a president who, in just over three years, has traveled from troublesome outsider to Republican Party standard-bearer.

Ritter said some vulnerable Republicans running in swing states and House districts may be able to differentiate themselves from Trump and appeal to the center on specific policy issues, but on something hyper-politicized like impeachment, they cannot afford to cross the president.

“On Trump, it’s binary,” Ritter said. “You’re either a treacherous Democrat or you’re with the president.”

The 2018 midterm elections did provide a flashing alarm for Republicans about the risks of being inextricably bound with Trump. Democrats retook the House majority after toppling Republican incumbents in many suburban districts and in state and local races — a takeover that laid the groundwork for impeachment.

Former Republican senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said challenges in suburbs, such as those surrounding Philadelphia, remain troubling for the party. But he said opposing Trump on impeachment is seen by most at-risk Republicans as the “wrong way to try to win over those voters.”

“You won’t get seen as playing to the suburbs,” Santorum said. “You’ll be seen as playing to the angry leftists who hate the president.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee worked to keep the probe of Russian election interference as bipartisan as possible, said he fully supports Trump and is surprised that anyone might be surprised.

“He’s a Republican, he’s president and we support his agenda,” Burr said. “The media, of course, tries to drive a wedge and wonder, but every poll today shows the president actually stronger today than he was four years ago.”

For Trump, Republican unity on impeachment is the fruit of the ultimate pressure campaign in a short political career defined by them. The president has upended so many norms that he has simply become the norm, with everyone else in the party scrambling to adjust.

That doesn’t mean Republicans all personally like Trump or cheer his conduct, either on foreign policy or other matters — in fact, many Republican lawmakers still complain loudly about him behind closed doors, sometimes mocking him as incompetent and undisciplined.

But many also privately acknowledge that Trump dominates the party in a potent and visceral way and say they are operating out of the partisan reality of an intensely divided nation.

Democrats, they add, should stop expecting a Republican establishment to stand up and block Trump, since Trump himself is now the establishment.

“I regularly talk to five or six Republicans who I feel some closeness to,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “I’ve heard for months that they know the president lies a lot. . . . They worry about his character. But they aren’t willing to come forward and say that publicly. That’s one of the tragedies of this era.”

Former Republican Georgia congressman Jack Kingston said he once had reservations about Trump but has since become an ardent admirer and booster. He explained his transformation with a shrug, saying his party and Washington “needed a shake-up.”

“I accept it,” he said.

The Georgia primary fight brewing between Loeffler and Collins is a classic Trump-era standoff, he added.

“Any GOP candidate is going to want to show he or she is close to Trump,” Kingston said. “If you think about the Republican Party, he’s the center of the orbit. You don’t want him to say something bad about you.”

The impulse for Republicans to link themselves tightly to the president spans the country, and includes some lawmakers not even currently up for reelection. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who doesn’t face reelection for four years, released a 30-second ad in Iowa that sided with Trump and attacked former vice president Joe Biden and other Democrats.

“I’d like to thank the Democrats for badly botching this impeachment charade and for spending so much time in a coverup for Joe Biden,” says Scott, who introduces himself as a juror in the Senate trial. “The real story here is the corruption Joe Biden got away with.”

The ad goes on to levy a series of factually problematic charges against Biden and his son Hunter, but its mere existence is sure to delight Trump — and sparked speculation that Scott is eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, seeking to cast himself as the torchbearer of Trump’s brand.

Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general under Trump who is now running to retake the Alabama Senate seat he vacated to join the administration, is also pushing to prove his fealty to the president — despite the fact that Trump, furious at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, publicly and privately berated and humiliated his attorney general for the majority of his tenure.

Nonetheless, on Wednesday, Sessions touted his loyalty to Trump in a trio of tweets focused on former national security adviser John Bolton, whose forthcoming book directly ties Trump to the Ukraine decision at the heart of his impeachment trial. Sessions emphasized that he never publicly criticized the president and dismissed Bolton’s memoir as “an act of disloyalty.”

Former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he understands if Republicans poke holes in the Democrats’ case against Trump and vote for acquittal but cannot accept Republicans insisting that Trump did nothing wrong. Those who do the latter, he said, are willfully taking a position they know is false.

“That’s the difference. Vote to acquit? Okay. You can make that argument. But to say this wasn’t an egregious abuse of his presidential duty? That’s where this party has problems,” Flake said. “To suggest otherwise signals complete subservience to the president.”

But Scott Reed, senior strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed to Trump’s “unprecedented high approval ratings with the GOP rank and file.”

“It’s Trump’s party now — there’s no way around that,” Reed said. “You may not agree with the boxes, but he’s checking all the boxes.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have had their own challenges holding their ranks together as Trump voters in red states have made clear to Democratic senators that they will pay a price for opposing the president.

Two centrists who won election last year — Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — as well as Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who will face voters this year after a long-shot win in a special election in 2017, have been coy about how they will vote on acquittal, giving hope to Trump’s allies that the president could win bipartisan support.

Many Republicans also believe that Trump stands a strong chance of reelection against a flawed Democratic opponent, whether a nominee from the left like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), or a longtime politician like Biden.

Dick Wadhams, a longtime Republican strategist based in Colorado, said the specific choice between Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee will help Republicans who have tacked to the right to appease the party’s base win over moderates, as well.

“It’s going to be a choice on the ballot and not a referendum in 2020, and that’s what makes this very different than 2018,” Wadhams said. He added that he was a begrudging Trump voter in 2016 but now is fully supportive. He pointed to Trump accomplishments like passing a tax cut and appointing conservative judicial nominees, as well as his concern about where the Democrats would take the country.

“I still have concerns about the way he behaves, his tweets drive me nuts, and a lot of Republicans feel that way, but at the same time — Medicare-for-all, Green New Deal, killing fracking — spare me,” he said, rattling off a list of liberal proposals. “Democrats are driving people who might want to vote for them back to Trump.”