2020 Election
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GOP Senators Facing Re-Election Have a Trump Problem. Here’s How They’re Dealing With It

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Updated: | Originally published:

Senate Republicans are caught in a political vise less than three weeks from Election Day. More and more members of their party are realizing that President Donald Trump is hurting their chances for re-election. “We are staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said on a call with constituents last week, in a recording published by the Washington Examiner. “I’m worried that if President Trump loses, as looks likely, that he’s going to take the Senate down with him,” Sasse said.

It’s a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for many Republican Senators. Standing by Trump could hurt them, while straying too far from him also risks losing what support they have among his stalwart base. “It’s very difficult for Republicans to define themselves outside the shadow of Trump, for fear of getting into a tweet storm of criticism,” says Chuck Coughlin, a Phoenix-based GOP consultant. “Republicans aren’t allowed via the President to define themselves any differently.”

The result: a rising chance that Democrats succeed in netting the four seats they need to take outright control of the chamber. Nonpartisan forecasters project the Democrats as favorites to recapture the Senate. Since January, The Cook Political Report has moved 10 states in the direction of Democrats, and on Oct. 19, FiveThirtyEight had their chances of taking the chamber at 74%.

Facing this dilemma, Republican Senate candidates — and particularly those locked in tight races — are trying a variety of tactics to save their political skin. Some are old standbys for politicians trying to distance themselves from an unpopular top-of-the-ticket candidate. Other strategies are more awkward — if not downright desperate. All of them show the diminishing window of opportunity for the GOP between now and Election Day.

Tactic #1: The Artful Dodge

At a debate on Oct. 6, Arizona’s Republican Senator Martha McSally was asked a simple question: was she proud of her support for President Donald Trump? Instead of answering, she launched into a straight-to-camera monologue about how she’s proud of her work “fighting for Arizonans,” before pivoting to an attack on her Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly. In Iowa, Senator Joni Ernst recently told reporters that she is “running on my own issues,” according to the Des Moines Register. Ernst reportedly added that she thought the President would carry the state. Both Senators have consistently stood with the President on most issues.

State of the Race:

McSally trails Kelly by an average of 7.9 points, according to RealClear Politics.

Ernst is behind her opponent, Theresa Greenfield, by an average of 4.8 points according to the RCP average.

Tactic #2: The Firewall Argument

In North Carolina, Senator Thom Tillis, locked in a tight re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, seemed to suggest that the strongest argument for keeping around a Senate Republican majority was to have a conservative insurance policy in the event that Trump loses. Tillis told Politico that “the best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate.”

State of the Race:

Tillis trails his opponent Cal Cunningham by about 4.3 points, according to the RCP average.

Tactic #3: Sunshine and Smiles

In Colorado, at an Oct. 9 debate against his Democratic challenger, John Hickenlooper, Senator Cory Gardner ducked when asked whether he was proud of the President’s response to coronavirus. “We have to work each and every day to make sure that we are proud of our response,” Gardner said. “This isn’t a question of pride, this is a question of getting through this together. I believe we must get through this by staying together, staying united.”

State of the Race:

Some of the latest polls show Hickenlooper with a lead of more than 10 points.

Tactic #4: Single-Issue Distancing

The most popular—and traditional—approach that has emerged is to broadly side with the President, and then pick individual issues on which to disagree. In Maine, Susan Collins, who is up for re-election and is trailing in the polls, has long used that tactic. Most recently, she said she favored the Senate waiting until after the election to vote on a Supreme Court justice.

Others are running away from the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response, or continued attacks on Obamacare. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is favored to hold his seat, told the Houston Chronicle that Trump had “let his guard down” on COVID-19 and that it was a reminder to “exercise self-discipline.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a point earlier this month of saying he hadn’t been to the White House since August, arguing that its “approach” to coronavirus has been different (read: less responsible) than the Senate’s.

Personal behavior “seems to be the one area where Republicans and candidates can distance themselves and show that they’re not Trump, that they’re individually well behaved, that they’re individually responsible,” says Wendy Schiller, chair of the Brown University Department of Political Science.

State of the Race:

McConnell and Cornyn are sitting pretty in their re-election bids, which are set in traditionally Republican states. But in Maine, Collins is trailing Sara Gideon, the Democratic challenger by around 4.2 points, according to the RCP average.

Tactic #5: The Farragut Approach

Even some Republicans in deep red states find themselves in uncomfortably close races. For them, the reflex more often than not is “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, has fully embraced Trump, including on his handling of COVID-19. But even there, where it should ostensibly be safe to go all-in, Graham has found himself in a close re-election race against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. Nevertheless, Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee that held hearings on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee this month, told Democrats during one of their meetings: “Y’all have a good chance of winning the White House.”

In Georgia, where two Senate races are playing out, both Republican incumbents have cast themselves as staunch Trump allies. Senator David Perdue appeared at a Trump rally in Georgia on Oct. 16. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat but is fighting in a special election to maintain it, has an ad touting her as “100% Trump.” And Rep. Doug Collins, the other top Republican in the special election, Trump has in the past called an “unbelievable friend of mine.”

State of the Race:

Polls show the South Carolina race is tight, with some casting it as a dead lock. Perdue is favored to win his re-election, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis, but polls there also show a tight race. The Georgia special election is also in toss-up territory, with Raphael Warnock as the leading Democrat.

This year’s crop of Republican Senators is hardly the first to search for ways to distance themselves from an unpopular top-of-the-ticket without losing their base, and many of them are using one or several of the above approaches. But the breadth of tactics and the number of states where they are being tried shows just how broad the Senate battleground really is in 2020, and how promising the outlook is for Democrats. That holds a longer-term lesson for the GOP, says Sasse: “It has always been imprudent for our party to try to tie itself to a Trumpian brand.” Then again, it’s easy for Sasse to go out on that limb: he’s in a deep red state and is widely favored to win.

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com