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Senate Republicans prepare for possible "post-Trump world"

As Republicans face an Election Day that could bring bad news for President Trump and their party, some are beginning to distance themselves from the commander-in-chief, while also trying not to attract the ire of the president and his supporters.

Some, like Senator Thom Tillis, who's in a tight reelection battle in North Carolina, are acknowledging that Mr. Trump may not prevail in his re-election bid. "The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate," he told Politico in an interview. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said to Democrats last week, "Y'all have a good chance of winning the White House." And other Republicans, like Senators Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, are openly criticizing the sitting president of their own party. 

Rory Cooper, a veteran political strategist who was Congressman Eric Cantor's communications director when he was majority leader, observed, "I don't think that you can find a Republican in Washington who thinks that President Trump's going to win reelection right now, even inside the White House — not anybody speaking honestly." 

"Trump needs to win all solid, likely and lean-R states, all toss-ups, and bring in some lean-Democratic states in order to hit 270 electoral votes," Cooper continued. "Nobody believes that's going to happen. So, of course they are planning on what a post-Trump — what a post-Trump world looks like. 

"And they're probably wanting to start defining where they land in that landscape," Cooper added. "I think that Senator Sasse was clearly staking out some ground for common-sense reform conservatism. And you know it's going to be harder for people like Ted Cruz to try and do that. He's still 100% in the tank two weeks out. I think that Republicans are starting to plan for what — what a likely loss is going to mean for them." 

Every Republican senator navigates his or her relationship with Mr. Trump differently, but those up for reelection need to hammer issues like court-packing and the filibuster, advises Tom Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"Trump could still carry North Carolina," Davis said. "It's not going to be a blowout either way, so you don't really need to distance too much from him. You want to obviously position yourself to get some swing voters."

If Democrats win the House, the Senate and the presidency, "they could go on and abolish the filibuster, bring in new states that would add to their majority, pack the court," Davis said. "That's your best argument. ...Even if you don't like Trump, you don't want these other things to happen."

And it's an argument that can be made without offending the sitting president, Davis said. He's urging candidates to ask their Democratic opponents, "'Would you vote to abolish the filibuster?' '…Can you tell us right now you would not pack the court?'"

Cooper said Senate Republicans should have been hammering the message that the best firewall against a Biden presidency is a Republican Senate six months ago, but definitely two weeks out. And if Mr. Trump cared about his own legacy, Cooper said, he would understand that.

"Senate Republican candidates should have been making the case that they were going to be a firewall against a possible Biden presidency for the last six months. It's not something that they should be even debating in the last two weeks," Cooper said. 

"I mean, forget what's about to happen — if Trump even cared about his last four years, he would want Mitch McConnell to maintain his position as the majority leader in order to protect it. But he doesn't care," Cooper added.

One of the key issues in this election has been disapproval of the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and that appears to be hurting him with some voters. Some Republican senators have been more vocal recently about criticizing him and his administration on this front.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has highlighted his efforts to put conservatives on bench, skipped the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination at the White House, saying that he hasn't been to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in months because he doesn't believe it's following sufficient safety protocols amid the pandemic. Around this time, there was a COVID outbreak at the White House, and several who attended the crowded ceremony, including the president and first lady, contracted the virus. The government's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci has referred to the ceremony as a "super-spreader event."

"My impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine," McConnell said of the White House. He also differs from Democrats and the White House on legislation, including the next COVID relief bill, telling Senate Republicans Tuesday that he has urged the White House not to make a deal on a large coronavirus stimulus package ahead of the election. His main focus in the final weeks before Election Day is Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation.

Prominent GOP critics of the president have usually been sparing in their criticism, trying to choose their moments, but as the election draws closer, they, too have been more vocal.

Senator Mitt Romney issued a lengthy statement on the state of democracy and the importance of a peaceful transition of power that was clearly directed at the president, and announced this week he's not voting for Mr. Trump. He didn't say who he voted for — in 2016, he wrote in his wife's name.

In audio obtained by the Washington Examiner, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, who recently won his primary, said the president "kisses dictators' butts." It didn't take long for the president to attack Sasse's average height of 5' 10" as "little," one of the president's favorite insults. 

But many Republicans won't criticize the president publicly, knowing that a Trump tweet is always only a few taps away. Senator John Cornyn, who is also up for reelection, admitted that he has disagreed with the president on several issues, including COVID-19 stimulus, trade agreements, and deficits, among other things, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board, but those disputes have been private. "What I tried to do is not get into public confrontations and fights with him because, as I've observed, those usually don't end too well," Cornyn said of the president.

Just ask Mark Sanford, the former GOP congressman and vocal Trump critic who lost a primary challenge after the president tweeted about him.

"They all live in fear of sort of the Trump tweet, right? And so they are just deliberately not going to do anything to bait him," said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University's Department of Government.

However, Mr. Trump may not be helping himself — or Senate Republicans — by attacking the ones who criticize him, Cooper said. He pointed to Maine, where the Trump campaign has made a concerted effort to win over voters, but where the president has attacked moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, who is struggling in her reelection bid. Collins has sometimes criticized the president and said she doesn't think the Senate should vote to confirm a Supreme Court justice so close to a presidential election.

Cooper suggested that Mr. Trump has "a chance at an electoral vote in Maine that he needs," but his criticism of Collins is likely to cost him that vote. The president, he lamented, "has never demonstrated a shred of investment in the future of the Republican Party...He doesn't care if his scorched-earth strategy costs the GOP the Senate majority after he's gone."

Fischer Martin said average voters are not going to notice subtle separations from the president two weeks out from the election.

"It's something that we sort of inside the Washington bubble will talk about but there's no way if you're a suburban voter, woman voter in Kentucky that you don't identify Mitch McConnell with Donald Trump. They're one and the same," she said. "And while we may pick over these subtle remarks, I just don't think that suburban women that have 9,000 other things going on are looking for little lines of separation in order to rationalize splitting their ticket on voting." 

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