WASHINGTON – For nearly four years, Republicans in Congress have evaded and dodged an endless cascade of insults and norm-shaking behavior from President Trump. Ignoring his caustic and absent-minded Twitter feed and penchant for disregarding party orthodoxy, he stood quietly by giving up the military allies, attacking American institutions, and instilling racist and nativist fears.
But now, with dismal election numbers and a flood of Democratic money and enthusiasm that have threatened their Senate majority, Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to publicly distance themselves from the president. The postponement, less than three weeks before the election, shows that many Republicans have concluded that Mr Trump is heading for a loss in November. And they are striving to save themselves and are rushing to restore their reputation for an imminent battle for their party̵
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska took a phone call at City Hall with voters against Mr Trump on Wednesday, gutted the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, accusing him of “flirting” with dictators and white supremacists and of sucking voters so far alienate that it could cause a “Republican carnage” in the Senate. He repeated a sentence by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who warned of a “Republican bloodbath the size of Watergate.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s most vocal allies, predicted the president could very well lose the White House.
Even the usually silent Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and majority leader, has been more open than usual for the past few days about his differences with the president and declined his request to “make it big” on a stimulus package. This was a reflection of the fact that Senate Republicans – who have seldom broken with the president over a major legislative initiative in four years – are unwilling to vote on his behalf for a multi-billion dollar federal aid plan suddenly passed by the government.
“Voters will drive the ultimate wedge between the Senate Republicans and Trump,” said Alex Conant, former aide to Senator Marco Rubio and former White House spokesman. “It’s much easier to get along when you win elections and you gain power. But when you find yourself on the brink of historic loss, there is less zeal just to get along. “
Republicans could hold on to both the White House and the Senate, and Mr Trump still has a tight grip on the party base, which may be why some of those known for being the most critical of him, like Mr Sasse and Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, declined to be asked about her concerns.
But their recent behavior has provided an answer to the long-pondered question of whether there would ever be a point where Republicans could turn down a president who said and did things so frequently that undermined their principles and message. The answer seems to be the moment they feared it would threaten their political survival.
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When some Senate Republicans have written off Mr Trump’s chances of winning, the feeling may be mutual. On Friday, the president released his latest Twitter attack on Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents, seemingly without concern that it might further jeopardize their chances, along with the party’s hopes of holding on to the Senate.
In a statement on Friday, Mr Romney attacked the president for unwilling to condemn QAnon, the viral pro-Trump conspiracy movement that the FBI has identified as a threat to domestic terrorism, electoral victories. “It was his second scathing testimony this week, criticizing Mr Trump even though Mr Romney linked both screeds with criticism of Democrats and said the two parties shared the blame.
Yet Mr Romney and other Republicans who have come out to voice dire predictions or concerns about Mr Trump are all sticking with the president in what is likely his final important act before the election: the endorsement of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of the party Conservatives, to the Supreme Court.
The dichotomy reflects the tacit deal that Congress Republicans accepted during the course of Mr Trump’s presidency in which they tolerated his fire behavior and statements, knowing that he would advance many of their priorities, including establishing a conservative majority at the highest court in the country.
Even so, the dire political environment has created a mess, particularly among Republicans with political aspirations beyond Mr Trump’s presidency to be on the frontline of a party reset.
“When he turns out to be a mere political mortal like everyone else, you really start to see the jockeying going on for the future of the Republican Party,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican Congressman from Florida I don’t have Mr Trump in 2016 supported. “What we heard from Senator Sasse yesterday was the beginning of this process.”
In an interview, Mr Curbelo said that his former colleagues have known for months that one day Mr Trump would “be subject to the laws of political gravity” – and that the party would face the consequences.
“Most Congress Republicans knew this was unsustainable in the long run, and they just – some people call it pragmatic, others call it opportunistic – bowed their heads and did what they had to do while they waited for that time have to come, ”he said.
It is unclear whether Republicans will attempt to redefine their party in the event the president loses, as Mr Trump’s tenure has shown the pull of his inflammatory policies to the crucial conservative base.
“He still has a huge impact on primary voters – and he will do so for a very long time – and that’s what matters to the Members,” said Brendan Buck, former advisor to the last two House speakers.
What Mr Sasse and Mr Cruz might be aiming for, he added, is a last-ditch effort to maintain Republican control over the Senate.
“If you can say it out loud, there is a powerful message that a Republican Senate can be a control over a democratically-run Washington,” Buck said. “It’s just hard to say out loud because you have to admit the president is done.”
During the campaign, Republicans are privately angry with the president for pulling down their Senate candidates and waging his battles over states that are traditionally Republican strongholds.
“His weakness in dealing with coronavirus put a lot more seating into play than we could ever have imagined a year ago,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and advisor. “We always knew there would be a number of close races in the Senate, and we probably swam against the tide in places like Arizona, Colorado, and Maine. But when you see states that are effectively connected, like Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, it tells you that something has happened in the wider area. “
In 2016, as Mr. Trump, then a candidate, became more and more likely to capture the party’s nomination, Mr. McConnell assured members that they would “drop him off like a bucket” if he threatened to take them to the general Harming elections.
That was not the case then, and it is unlikely that Republicans will be ready for re-election. You know right away that Democratic voters are unlikely to reward such a reprimand, especially just before election day. But there were other, more subtle movements.
Despite repeated public requests from Mr Trump for Republicans to adopt a larger pandemic stimulus package, Mr McConnell has all but declined, saying Senators in his party would never support a package of this magnitude. Senate Republicans outraged last weekend on a conference call with Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, warning that a high-spending deal would be “betrayal” of the party’s grassroots and tarnish its credentials as a fiscal hawk.
A more personal reprimand came from Mr McConnell last week when the re-elected Kentuckian told reporters he had avoided going to the White House for handling the coronavirus since late summer.
“My impression was that their approach to dealing with this was different from mine and I insisted that we do it in the Senate,” said McConnell.