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For Republicans, fearful of a possible electoral disaster just weeks away, it has become safe at last to diss Donald Trump — or at least to distance themselves from him in unmistakably purposeful ways.
A barrage of barbed comments in recent days shows how markedly the calculus of fear has shifted in the GOP. For much of the past four years, Republican politicians were scared above all about incurring the wrath of the president and his supporters with any stray gesture or remark that he might regard as not sufficiently deferential. Now, several of them are evidently more scared of not being viewed by voters as sufficiently independent.
This is far from an insurrection. Republicans in the main aren’t outright repudiating Trump. But they are effectively rolling their eyes in exasperation with him, and especially his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the most vivid recent examples:
* Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas acknowledging in a Friday interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he’s “worried” about the election, which he warned could be a “bloodbath of Watergate proportions” for his party, depending on how voters view the pandemic and economy on Election Day.
* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters Thursday he has not been to the White House in more than two months, since Aug. 6, because he doesn’t have confidence that Trump and his team are practicing good coronavirus hygiene. McConnell said, “my impression was their approach to how to handle this was different than mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
* Sen. Thom Tillis, in a perilous fight for reelection in North Carolina, telling POLITICO in an interview that one reason to vote for him is to help Republicans keep their Senate majority as “the best check on a Biden presidency.”
* Sen. Martha McSally, running behind in her bid to keep her Arizona seat, refusing to say at a debate with challenger Mark Kelly — despite being pressed repeatedly by the moderator — whether she is proud of being a backer of Trump. “Well, I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes … ” she filibustered.
* Sen. John Cornyn, still ahead in polls but facing a tougher-than-usual race in Texas, told the Houston Chronicle that Trump did not practice “self-discipline” in combating the coronavirus, and that his efforts to signal prematurely that the pandemic is receding are creating “confusion” with the public. Trump got “out over his skis,” Cornyn said.
* Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican in a historically Democratic-leaning state, said this week that Trump has been “incredibly irresponsible” through words and actions “to ignore the advice of so many of the folks in the public health, epidemiol infectious disease community.”
* After Trump abruptly called off talks on a new economic recovery plan this week, a number of Republicans publicly broke with Trump’s strategy. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection, went so far as to call Trump’s move a “huge mistake.” Rep. John Katko of New York, who represents a district Hillary Clinton carried, made clear he “disagrees” with the president. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a top Trump ally who is locked in the toughest race of his political career, urged Trump to come back to the negotiating table. In the face of the uproar, Trump did reverse course, though a deal remains highly uncertain.
What’s going on with all this GOP static? In the past, Trump has been able to effectively end the careers of people who drew his ire. Former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, an occasional Trump critic, was in a tough primary challenge in 2018 when Trump weighed in decisively against him in the closing hours. The New York Times said Sanford’s loss proved that, “having a conservative voting record is less important than demonstrating total loyalty to Mr. Trump.” Later, Jeff Sessions, trying to return to the Senate from Alabama after losing Trump’s confidence as attorney general, learned the same lesson.
One thing that’s changed, operatives in both parties say, is that there is now strength in numbers. A growing roster of Republicans are stepping sideways or ducking from the camera to make sure they are not captured in the same frame as Trump. In addition, Trump is simply too consumed by the resident chaos all around his West Wing in the closing weeks of his own reelection campaign to carry out punitive measures against GOP disloyalists.
Even some of Trump’s top supporters on Capitol Hill recognize that the coronavirus is a huge political unknown for them. Party operatives say the GOP is in a far better position if the election is focused on the Supreme Court battle, as opposed to a referendum on Trump’s leadership during the global health crisis.
“I feel more comfortable with the Supreme Court fight being the No. 1 issue than Covid being the No. 1 issue, and that’s because the Supreme Court issue is very defining. We have a nominee, we’re going to have hearings … and that’s all a known quantity,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in an interview with POLITICO. “But Covid is not so clear.”
Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, likened the moves of prominent GOP figures this week to “animals before an earthquake” trying to reposition themselves before what could be “a disastrous election for the Republicans.”
In order to hang on, operatives say Republican candidates need to untether themselves from Trump by building a separate brand and message on the pandemic — without provoking the rage of the president or his supporters.
But “it’s really hard to successfully do that, given the intensity of Trump’s base,” acknowledged Heye. “They allow you to be critical of Trump on [certain] issues, but not on things that are really Trump-centric.”
And so far, there’s little evidence the strategy is working.
The GOP’s fortunes haven’t markedly improved in Maine — where Collins has refused to say whether she will even vote for Trump. The party is facing uphill climbs in Arizona and Colorado, and is in tough shape in Iowa. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate hopefuls now appear competitive in previously safe states such as Kansas and South Carolina. In North Carolina, the party’s political prospects are only looking brighter after a sexting scandal involving Cal Cunningham, the Democrat trying to unseat Tillis.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.