With the Republican Party threatening to implode amid billionaire Donald Trump’s seemingly inexorable, foul-mouthed ascent to the presidential nomination, Senate Republicans struggling to retain their majority appear to be taking an every-man-for himself approach.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) is alarmed that a Trump candidacy might well lead to the demise of the GOP’s hold on Congress and the election of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton as president. He has privately advised vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents to distance themselves from the bombastic and polarizing Trump during the general election campaign, according to The New York Times.
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While still holding out dim hope that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) can somehow deny Trump an outright majority of the delegates heading into this summer’s Republican National Convention, McConnell is preparing his colleagues for the strong possibility that Trump will be their party’s nominee. If that’s the case, then McConnell is advising endangered GOP Senate candidates to run negative ads against Trump “to create space between him and Republican senators seeking reelection.”
McConnell has been a frequent target of Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for being the personification of the Republican political establishment they want to dismantle. McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and other GOP congressional leaders have been appalled by Trump’s take-no-prisoners campaign style, his proposals for deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, barring Muslims from entering the country, and his more liberal stands, including preserving funding for Planned Parenthood and providing health care for all.
Now, Trump has dragged Rubio -- one of the two remaining viable GOP candidates -- down in the mud with him. Over the weekend, the two exchanged crude schoolyard taunts suggesting that neither was up to the role of commander in chief. And Cruz – the other viable challenger – has made it difficult for him to go after Trump more vigorously after having played up to him throughout much of the early months of the campaign. So far, only one senator has endorsed the billionaire, and that is archconservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a champion of Trump’s most draconian immigration policies.
Few other Republican senators are expected to follow suit.
McConnell reportedly has begun spinning out a fail-safe strategy for Senate Republicans to preserve their majority as a barrier to an increasingly likely Clinton administration. If Clinton is elected president, she will be able to nominate a successor to the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative powerhouse on the court.
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The Republicans currently hold a 54 to 46 seat advantage over the Democrats and Democratic leaning independents – a fragile majority that could be washed away if the GOP suffers a major upset in November.
“McConnell has already suggested one way to handle the Trump matter—make it clear you’re not supportive and you’re running your own race,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato in an email on Monday. “Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. Voters know how to ticket-split, though there has been a lot less of it in recent elections than there was in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.”
Seven seats could determine the fate of the Senate in November, including the two being vacated by Rubio in Florida and retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. The five other endangered Senate seats held by Republicans include the following:
Mark Kirk (IL) -- The first-termer is deemed the most vulnerable Senate Republican seeking reelection. He’s struggling to retain his seat in a Democratic-leaning state against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a highly decorated former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War. Illinois elected Bruce Rauner, a conservative GOP businessperson, as governor last year over the highly unpopular Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn. But President Obama should give Duckworth a huge boost in his home state.
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Ron Johnson (WI) – Johnson has the misfortune of running for a second term in a state that Democrats have won in seven consecutive presidential elections. He is running against Democrat Russ Feingold, whom Johnson ousted in 2010. Public opinion polls have consistently shown Feingold with an eight to ten point lead over Johnson, who enjoys a loyal liberal and union base.
Pat Toomey (PA) -- Toomey, a former House member and head of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, is another freshman who was swept into power in 2010 on a conservative GOP wave. Yet ever since, he has worked hard to moderate his image to appeal to voters in blue-leaning Pennsylvania – even teaming up with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to promote gun control measures. Although Trump tops the field of GOP presidential candidates in Pennsylvania, according to a new Franklin & Marshall College poll, he turns off independent and opposition party members – just the people Toomey is attempting to woo.
Kelly Ayotte (NH) -- Ayotte quickly established herself as one of the Senate’s top defense hawks after winning election in 2010, and has allied herself with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who dropped out after a failed bid for the 2016 presidential nomination. Ayotte will have her hands full fending off a challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, a popular figure. And even while Trump finished first in the Feb. 10 New Hampshire Republican primary, two thirds of Republicans backed other candidates, including second-place finisher John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.
Rob Portman (OH) -- The mild-mannered Portman, a former House member, has solid credentials as a former U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget. The low-key Republican is highly regarded on both sides of the aisle. However, Portman is being challenged by Ted Strickland, a popular and well-known former governor. Portman has acknowledged that Congress has become a dysfunctional institution and needs to be reformed. But he has sharply disagreed with the more extreme parts of Trump’s campaign agenda, including banning Muslims from entering the United States and deporting 11 million illegal immigrant. “I’m not a rabble-rousing, red-meat Donald Trump guy,” he said late last year.