Against the Grain

Will Senate Republicans Start Breaking From Trump?

Cory Gardner and Susan Collins already broke with the president over the government shutdown. They’ll be joined by others if Trump’s popularity continues to sag.

Sen. Thom Tillis
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Jan. 13, 2019, 6 a.m.

For a reminder of how tricky the political calculus will be for swing-state Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020, take a look at former Sen. Dean Heller’s conundrum last year. Heller, facing political headwinds in a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, initially tried to keep his distance from President Trump. He opposed early attempts to repeal President Obama’s health care law, drawing the wrath of a president who demands unceasing loyalty.

Under political pressure from his base, Heller flipped on health care—ultimately voting for legislation that would have rolled back major parts of Obamacare. The vote dogged him throughout the general election, serving as the Democrats’ leading line of attack against him. The criticism did not faze Heller: After his fateful vote, he became a reliable ally of the president and Trump returned the favor by campaigning alongside him.

The result of that loyalty? Heller lost badly against now-Sen. Jacky Rosen, tallying just 45 percent of the vote. It’s a lesson that for targeted Republicans in 2020, there’s no easy way to navigate life with Trump. Stick with him, and you’re saddled with defending a president who is anathema to independents. But keep some distance, and risk alienating the base Republican votes that are critical to winning an election.

It’s a lesson that the newest crop of senators up for reelection are internalizing. In 2020, five Republican senators will likely face tough competition: Arizona’s Martha McSally, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Maine’s Susan Collins, and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. A sixth, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, also faces the possibility of a challenging reelection. These are the senators who have the most to lose from the protracted government shutdown and will be under the most political pressure to break from the president.

Two of them—Gardner and Collins—have already defected and called for Trump to reopen the government without his border-wall funding. Both senators represent states that Clinton won in 2016, and where the president is most unpopular.

The senators representing battleground states that Trump won have been more circumspect. Ernst declared that not all parts of the border needed a physical barrier, a notable break from the president’s posture, but she’s blamed Senate Democrats instead of Trump for the standoff.

McSally, who was appointed to her seat after losing an election last year, drew ample criticism for tying herself so closely to Trump in her failed campaign. McSally hasn’t developed a more independent streak as senator, backing Trump’s tactics—even while sponsoring legislation that would pay border-security agents during the shutdown.

Then there are the biggest Trump loyalists of the bunch: Tillis told HuffPost he’s deferring to the president on legislative strategy while holding out hope that a bipartisan agreement can be reached. Perdue is one of the president’s stalwart supporters, and he has championed the president’s approach to the shutdown fight.

The sizable number of Republican senators with political incentive to break from the president is what makes 2019 different from the first two years of Trump’s presidency. With only one swing-state Republican on a ballot in 2018, there were more anti-Trump senators who broke with him out of principle (Jeff Flake and Bob Corker) than those who might have done so for political reasons (Heller, initially). And with Republicans fully in power, it was self-defeating for Republicans to scuttle the president’s largely conservative agenda out of spite.

Now Democrats control the House, ending any real possibility of consequential legislation passing through Congress. Future control of the Senate will be determined by whether these battleground-state Republicans end up surviving past Trump’s reelection campaign. If Trump were more popular and not facing the possibility of a seismic scandal, both sides would be in alignment. But with the Senate being the GOP’s best, last line of defense, there may be a point where the most vulnerable Republicans end up declaring some independence from an embattled White House.

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