Republican senators up for reelection this fall in tight races have been unwilling to publicly criticize Trump as he continues to fan racial tensions and struggles to control a pandemic that has devastated the economy and killed close to 130,000 Americans. But they are being careful not to embrace him either.
In their campaign ads back home, it’s as if the unpopular incumbent president doesn’t exist, as Republicans choose instead to highlight their own achievements or go on the attack against their Democratic challengers.
This deliberate approach underscores the difficult position Republicans find themselves in as they head into an election season that looks increasingly grim for the party. The senators don’t want to clash with Trump and rile up his stable of loyal supporters whose votes they will need to be reelected, but they also don’t want to hug him tightly and turn off more moderate voters whose views of the president have turned negative.
“The sweet spot is finding real ways to show your independence and to do it in ways that don’t antagonize the base,” said Republican strategist Matt Gorman, vice president at the GOP consulting firm Targeted Victory.
It’s a balancing act that could give even a tightrope walker vertigo.
Trump’s sagging popularity is one of several challenges confronting Senate Republicans as they face a dire outlook in their bid to retain the majority this fall. Forecasts by nonpartisan analysts have shifted several campaigns in Democrats’ favor, with states previously considered in a lower tier of competitive races now showing up on the national political radar.
Democratic challengers in key Senate races have also shoveled in campaign cash at a massive, record-breaking pace, continuing to outraise Republicans with sums that strategists say are powered by grass-roots donors who are enthusiastic about ousting GOP senators from office.
Despite that outlook, Republicans working on Senate races say it’s nearly inconceivable that GOP senators will break from Trump in as dramatic of a fashion as some did in 2016, when an old video of Trump bragging about kissing and groping women prompted a handful of Republicans to repudiate him.
In a closed-door party lunch last week, veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz advised Republican senators not to disavow the president, but to put some daylight between themselves and Trump, according to two people familiar with his presentation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private remarks. Luntz also warned that this November’s congressional results could be similar to the 2006 midterms, when Democrats wrested control of both chambers away from the GOP after President George W. Bush’s popularity fell as a result of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. Luntz did not respond to a request for comment.
So back home and in their campaign commercials, GOP senators are finding more subtle ways to separate themselves from the daily controversies consuming the man at the top of the ticket.
In a CNN interview this week, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) couldn’t escape questions about Trump and was reluctant to directly criticize him when asked. Though she was quick to chastise President Barack Obama over his handling of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Ernst declined to do the same with Trump and the coronavirus, noting that he was “stepping forward” despite the far higher death toll.
But in a forum where she could promote her own message — her first television ad, which launched this week — Ernst focused on her military background and pivoted to an emphasis on manufacturing goods in the United States, rather than China, a common theme in GOP ads this cycle.
“We rely on communist China for far too much, from technology to medicine,” Ernst says, speaking to the camera. “So I’m fighting to bring it home.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, released the first ads of his campaign on Wednesday — a pair of commercials warning viewers that Democrat Jon Ossoff would “destroy the American Dream for our children and our grandchildren” and highlighting how Perdue backed overhauling law enforcement practices while supporting police officers.
Neither ad mentioned Trump or his relationship with him.
Republican strategists say voters who back the president will generally stick with the party’s Senate pick, unless that candidate disavows Trump. With the base shored up, GOP senators in contested races are largely focused on promoting their own brands to win over swing voters — especially in a political environment that has become so Trump-focused and nationalized.
In several states, Republicans are also largely unknown despite spending several years in federal office and are using airtime to introduce their biography and legislative record to voters.
Using limited campaign resources to play up their ties to Trump would be a poor strategic play in general elections, according to GOP strategists, considering opinions of the president are already well-formed among voters.
“They know these states better than anybody else in terms of the party generally, so they understand what it takes to build an effective majority coalition,” GOP pollster David Winston said.
The exception is in GOP primaries, where Trump and his endorsement, or even merely kind words for the candidate, are a frequent fixture. Republican Bill Hagerty in Tennessee, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Japan, has released at least four ads ahead of the Aug. 6 primary promoting his ties to the president, including one that features an endorsement from Donald Trump Jr.
In an increasingly nasty Republican primary in Kansas — where the president has not officially endorsed anyone — the candidates tout their allegiance to Trump, with Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) noting in an ad that the president has called him a “great friend” and Kris Kobach saying he’s “always stood with” Trump in an immigration-themed ad. (Bob Hamilton, a plumber, in one ad notes that Trump has to “deal with a lot of crap.”)
And in a special election in Georgia, recently appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler has used her campaign ads to tout her Trump bona fides as she faces not only Democrat Raphael Warnock but also Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), an ardent Trump ally who was one of the president’s biggest defenders in his impeachment fight.
Tillis, who faced a potential intraparty threat until conservative businessman Garland Tucker decided not to pursue a bid, highlighted Trump’s endorsement of him in an ad that ran during the primary season. But in his general election ads, any mention of the president has disappeared, as Tillis instead highlights his background and promises a laser focus on jobs for North Carolinians.
National Democrats are intent on tying GOP Senate candidates to Trump, arguing that any semblance of independence that Republicans are trying to show is meaningless because they have failed to keep him in check throughout his first term in office.
“Republicans in the Senate might be trying to disappear Donald Trump from their campaign ads, but they can’t erase their records in Washington of enabling the White House’s attacks on health care in the middle of a pandemic or their refusal to hold the president accountable as he divides a nation in crisis,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In many cases, Republican senators are positioning themselves like a challenger trying to go on the offensive.
In Montana, Sen. Steve Daines (R) tied Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to national party figures, charging that his opponent would help Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “pass government-controlled health care.”
That contrast, in addition to promoting their legislative records, is likely to continue to be a theme in Republicans campaigns in the most competitive races this year.
“Republican senators have incredible records of accomplishment on behalf of their constituents and it’s important they tell that story,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Those accomplishments stand in stark contrast to the disturbing pattern of scandal and extremism that’s engulfed Democrat campaigns.”