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Republicans mostly believe there is still enough time to right the ship during this volatile year, particularly if the positive jobs report from Friday is an early indication of an economic rebound.
But they are fully aware that poll after poll has shown Trump losing ground to former Vice President Joe Biden and multiple surveys show Democrats ahead by a sizable margin in the so-called generic ballot over which party should control Congress.
Republicans are keenly aware that the President’s consistent controversies at a time of national crises — whether it was the police confrontation with protestors outside the White House last week or his baseless tweet about an injured elderly protestor in Buffalo on Tuesday — has continually put them on the defensive during a high-stakes election year.
Asked if it would be helpful for more message discipline out of the White House, GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said: “Of course. But you’re not going to change him.”
“Yeah,” Cornyn said when asked if he’s concerned about the poll numbers. “It’s been a tough year all around,” citing the Covid-19 pandemic and the deadly incident with Floyd, a black man whose death in Minneapolis police custody has prompted weeks of protests across the country.
“I don’t think anybody would disagree with that, but you know there’s still — what, a few months — until the election and the economy seems to be picking up. So I’m still somewhat optimistic.”
GOP senators are split over what actions Trump should take amid deep unrest in the country — with some calling on him to be more public and to use his megaphone to heal the nation and make more unifying remarks. Others have a different suggestion.
“I think maybe instead of speaking he should do some listening,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, when asked if Trump should try to make remarks to heal the country.
Graham said as the incumbent, Trump is going to be blamed for everything that goes wrong but as long as he can deliver on the economy, he could be safe. But he said it’ll be more clear where the economy stands after the Republican convention in November.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Trump amid the growing concern about November as they mapped out the fierce battle for control of the Senate.
“I think it’s a jump ball,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi of the elections, hoping the economy will turn things around. He added: “Most of his ardent supporters back home wish he would tweet less.”
But in interviews with Senate Republicans, the recurring theme revolves around this: There needs to be a change in tactics at the White House.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said she’s “behind” the idea of a “more unifying message” to come from the President.
“I hope that he projects a really strong message of unification — that’s what we really need to hear right now,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican facing a potentially difficult reelection race.
Polls show a President whose standing has deteriorated substantially in recent months. A CNN poll released this week showed Trump’s approval rating down 7 points in the last month and now in the same terrain as Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, both of whom lost their bids for a second term. That comes after an average of six prior polls showed Biden up by 10 nationally.
And perhaps more concerning for congressional Republicans: The so-called generic ballot. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll last week showed voters preferred a Democratic -led Congress by an 11-point margin, a number on par with the 2018 midterms that saw Democrats take the House.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said that politics is “very dynamic” so “I wouldn’t feel great about it if his numbers were high and I wouldn’t be too concerned about it if his numbers are now.”
“I mean the President wakes up in the morning and takes a breath, half the people in this country are upset he’s breathing,” Rubio said when asked if the President should stay away from incendiary tweets. “At least some percent in this country (gets upset). His critics are always going to criticize anything he does, but that’s not just him; that’s just the nature of modern American politics.”
Republicans realize they are in a quandary when Trump dabbles in controversy. They believe their strongest hand is to show unity with the President — and a party engaged in an intraparty war will only mean problems come November, including in Senate races where the GOP needs to stem their net losses to just two if Biden were to win the presidency in order to keep the majority. Moreover, they recognize that Trump’s itchy Twitter finger could be problematic if they step out of line, given his penchant to attack even when faced with the mildest critique.
Nowhere was this dynamic more evident than Tuesday when GOP senators mostly dodged questions about Trump’s incendiary and baseless tweet suggesting that a 75-year-old protestor was an Antifa “provocateur” and “set up” the incident when police shoved him to the ground, causing him to bleed from the head and be rushed to the hospital. Republican senator after Republican senator refused to condemn the tweet, with GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin telling CNN he didn’t even want to see a printed out copy of the tweet, which he claimed not to have seen.
“I would rather not hear it,” he said Tuesday.
“I don’t know how that advances any cause. It’s an unfounded accusation. I don’t think it’s helpful,” Graham said.
Asked Wednesday about the controversy caused by his tweets, Johnson said: “I mean most of us kind of long ago said: ‘It would be nice if we could take away some of those tweets.'” Johnson, however, added some tweets are “pretty effective.”
“I certainly don’t want to respond to all the tweets,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
While Johnson said he’s “always concerned” about the elections, he downplayed the recent polls, noting how off they’ve been in the past and arguing how volatile the electorate is right now.
“We are seeing the political conditions [change] today vs. three months ago vs. a month ago vs. literally two weeks ago,” Johnson said. “Who knows what’s going to happen?”
But at the end of the day, GOP senators say, their fortunes likely rise-and-fall with Trump’s.
“If the President wins and wins big that’ll be a draft for everybody down-ballot,” Cornyn said. “That won’t be 100%, but you’d rather have him doing well at the top of ticket.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.