In battle for Congress, Republicans struggle to navigate Trump's sinking approval

"There's absolutely no political gain to be running from Trump," says one Republican operative. But there's plenty of risk in sticking with him, too.
Image: President Donald Trump
For some Republican lawmakers, appealing to independent voters would mean breaking with the president and the wishes of his passionate followers — essential to a winning GOP coalition.Evan Vucci / AP

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Sahil Kapur

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's standing has taken a beating. And less than four months before the election, Republican candidates are walking on thinning tightrope trying to survive.

In a normal presidency, they'd be racing to distance themselves from him. But Trump has put them in an unusual predicament. The suburban and well-educated voters who are often decisive have soured on him. Yet their core party base of white voters without college degrees remains devoted to the president and demands loyalty from their lawmakers.

The tension is evident in North Carolina, a swing state where Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is fighting for his political life against Democrat Cal Cunningham, an Army veteran who is a former state senator, in a race some see as a bellwether for Senate control.

Jay Copan, 68, a conservative North Carolinian who voted for Tillis in 2014, said he will vote for Cunningham because he's fed up with Trump and because "Thom Tillis is so in the tank for Trump."

"I've donated money to Thom Tillis and supported Thom Tillis in the past," Copan said. "On the issues, I could support Republicans more than Democrats. But I believe Trump has done so much damage to this country, and that also means throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

But appealing to voters like Copan would mean breaking with the president and the wishes of his passionate followers. They are essential to a winning coalition for Tillis.

"If you're Thom Tillis, your bigger danger is being seen as abandoning Trump. That could crater him," said political consultant Charles Hellwig of Raleigh, a former chair of the Wake County Republican Party. "But I don't believe he will do that. He supports the president."

Hellwig ran businessman Garland Tucker's campaign when he challenged Tillis in the GOP primary by highlighting Tillis' disagreements with Trump. Tillis responded by hugging Trump closely, which won accolades from the president and closed off the path for Tucker, who ended his bid.

"There's absolutely no political gain to be running from Trump. In the general election, it's us versus them, and the Democrats are left-wing loony nuts," Hellwig said. "You start splitting really fine hairs to make electoral gains."

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and alerts

Similar dilemmas have complicated the prospects of at least seven other Senate Republicans facing competitive re-election races as Democrats are better positioned than ever before to capture the majority. In the House, hopes of retaking control are rapidly fading for the GOP.

Democrats' lead in "generic ballot" surveys that tend to reflect the landscape in House races has grown from 5.6 points at the beginning of February to 9 points, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. That's even larger than the party's advantage in the 2018 midterm rout, which delivered them the majority.

Americans give Trump low marks in surveys for his handling of two crises — the coronavirus pandemic and a national backlash against racism in policing. He trails his presumed Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, by 9 points in the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

Trump's approval rating fell to 38 percent in a June Gallup poll, a dangerous position for a president. Approval among Republicans was rock solid, at 91 percent, while his rating among independent voters was 33 percent, falling by 10 points since February, before the pandemic.

In Gallup data from late May through June, the president's approval was in negative territory in all categories of gender, age, race and ethnicity and education. The one bright spot: 57 percent of white voters without college degrees said they approve.

Keeping them energized is vital for Republicans. Having an independent reputation also helps.

"Look, I think everyone recognizes that a united party helps everyone. But no matter who is in the White House, it's always a positive to have an independent identity," said Matt Gorman, a GOP consultant who worked on the party's 2018 House campaign arm.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the most vulnerable incumbents facing voters this year, declined to say recently whether she plans to vote for Trump, according to The New York Times. She didn't join Trump when he visited Maine last month.

Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., both rallied with the president this year and heaped praise on him before the pandemic hit. In recent weeks they have steered clear of the national spotlight and have highlighted noncontentious issues at home, like protecting public lands for Gardner and promoting rural health for McSally.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was reminded in a recent CNN interview that she had criticized former President Barack Obama for his "failed leadership" when the Ebola virus killed two Americans. But she declined to criticize Trump amid roughly 130,000 U.S. deaths from the coronavirus: "No, I think that the president is stepping forward," she said.

Even Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who has spent 3½ years cultivating an image as a stalwart Trump ally, released two ads last week that make no mention of his party or the president. In one spot, he portrays himself as a moderate fighting for police reforms, including body cameras, and making law enforcement "look more like the communities they serve."

His colleague Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who was appointed to the seat and took office in January, is simultaneously fending off a serious conservative challenge from Republican Rep. Doug Collins, as well as Democrats in a jungle primary this fall.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

A Republican strategist and Trump ally, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about them, said the party's voters have a tendency to demand loyalty to a self-defeating degree.

"There are some people — if you're mad that this candidate said something against Trump, you might take your ball and go home," the strategist said. "Conservatives are dumb enough to do that sometimes. We'll make the perfect the enemy of the good."

In a speech at the North Carolina GOP convention Monday, Tillis maintained his embrace of Trump.

"Getting President Trump re-elected is critically important," he said. "In February, before COVID hit us, we had the greatest economic numbers, the greatest employment numbers among women and minorities, that we've had since the numbers have been counted. We were moving in the right direction, and thank goodness that Donald Trump was there."