WASHINGTON — Republican senators are increasingly voicing fears that President Donald Trump could lose the election, and some are openly fretting that he’ll turn the party's candidates into electoral roadkill, distancing themselves from him to an unusual extent.
A weekend of agonizing from Republicans did not yield any perceivable course correction from Trump as he continued his inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail and directed some of his fire right back at anxious GOP senators on Twitter.
Pointed warnings of electoral defeat have come in recent days from Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All are former Trump critics turned allies who reliably vote with the president.
“I’m worried that if President Trump loses — as looks likely — that he’s going to take the Senate down with him,” Sasse said in a conference call with constituents last week, according to a recording first reported on Thursday by the Washington Examiner. “I’m now looking at the possibility of a Republican bloodbath in the Senate.”
The elevated fears come as Democrat Joe Biden leads Trump by more than 9 points in the NBC News national polling average, and as some forecasters say Democrats are likely to secure control of Congress. The grim GOP outlook follows Trump’s widely criticized debate showing, hospitalization for Covid and a failure to secure an economic stimulus package.
“I hope that they're having a moment of moral clarity. I think they're realizing that the Trump show is almost over,” said Olivia Troye, a former homeland security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence who served on the White House coronavirus task force. “They have ridden the Trump wave long enough. But I think it's no longer helpful to do that for them.”
Troye, a longtime Republican, says she plans to vote for Biden and Democrats down the ballot this fall. “There needs to be a significant change,” she said, and insisted that Sasse represents the misgivings of many party elites who are afraid to speak up.
At the Supreme Court hearing last Thursday for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Trump golfing partner who is in a close re-election battle himself, told Democrats, “Y’all have a good chance of winning the White House.”
Cruz, a Trump rival in 2016 and now a staunch ally, said recently on CNBC that if Americans are angry and depressed, “we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress," and the 2020 election “could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions.”
The remarks also represent a jockeying for position in an anticipated post-Trump world, when the party will have to chart a new path. As others in the GOP cozy up to far-right conspiracy movements like QAnon, Sasse suggested in his remarks that he wants to excise some of the party's Trumpian elements.
Sasse unloaded on Trump, saying that he “kisses dictators' butts,” mistreats women, “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors” and has “flirted with white supremacists.” He said that Trump’s family “has treated the presidency like a business opportunity,” and that Trump refused to take the coronavirus seriously for “months” and instead “treated it like a news cycle PR crisis rather than a multi-year public health challenge.”
Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Republican operative, said the remarks “strike me less as panic and more as resignation setting in.”
“Even then only Sasse has been critical of the president. Cruz is essentially pre-spinning the loss and laying the blame with Democrats,” he said. “Both suggest the writing is on the wall, but otherwise very different tacks.”
Trump lashed back Saturday in a series of tweets, saying that Sasse has returned to his “stupid and obnoxious ways” after being “nice” to him in recent years and earning his endorsement, which helped Sasse win renomination to his Senate seat in May.
“Little Ben is a liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska,” Trump wrote. “Other than that, he’s just a wonderful guy!”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who trails his Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham in a competitive race, is openly contemplating Trump’s defeat and orienting his messaging around it.
“The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate. And I do think 'checks and balances' does resonate with North Carolina voters,” he told Politico.
Garland Tucker, a retired Raleigh financier who briefly challenged Tillis in the Republican primary before ending his bid early and endorsing him, told NBC News that there is “apprehension” in the party that Trump could lose.
“Any conservative and any Republican fears that could be the case,” he said. But several days ago, he predicted “a very close election” that could tighten if Trump “has a successful next three weeks.”
Tucker said he remained optimistic that Trump would win but added that Republican candidates are in trouble if he doesn’t. “The weaker President Trump is at the top of the ticket, the more likely it is that we lose the Senate majority,” he said. “The two are pretty inextricably combined.”
The fears were compounded on Friday when Trump tore into Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a 24-year GOP incumbent fighting for her political life, for opposing Barrett's Supreme Court nomination this close to an election. “Well, she didn’t support Healthcare or my opening up 5000 square miles of Ocean to Maine, so why should this be any different,” he tweeted. “Not worth the work!”
To some GOP operatives, the tweet was a slapdash rant that further jeopardized a potentially pivotal Senate seat, as Collins has no path if Trump supporters don’t vote for her. But to Trump allies, his reaction was understandable given that Collins was not willing to support Barrett.
“It’s disappointing that Collins wouldn’t back Barrett, or feels she can’t,” Tucker said. “And I’m sure he’s frustrated.”