If there is one word that best describes Senate Republicans in the age of Donald Trump, it’s “docile.” With the exception of a few independent-minded lawmakers who have been able to make a name for themselves or who have spent decades cultivating their own brand, the Senate GOP conference has played the roll of cannon fodder–dewey-eyed shock troops at the front waiting for instructions from the General residing on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. It doesn’t matter what Trump says or what controversy he creates for himself: the GOP will defend him until the last man standing.
Yet a little more than two weeks from Election Day, this dynamic is starting to change. All of a sudden, the same legislators who believed their political careers were tied to how closely they hugged Trump are now realising they need to create distance between themselves and an unpopular incumbent. Some are beginning to see a sinking ship—and they have no intention of going down with it.
While most of the focus has been on the presidential race, vulnerable Republicans in the Senate are scrapping and clawing to save their seats. Typically, incumbents have the benefit of high-name ID and more resources. Yet in this election, it’s the challengers who are out-raising the incumbents and thrashing the airwaves. Thanks to Trump’s long list of foibles, the Democratic Party is riding a tide of enthusiasm ranging from diehard progressives to the middle-of-the-road white guy in suburbia who is just tired of the nonsense. Republicans who were already projected to be in tough re-election races—like Colorado’s Cory Gardner—are also facing a situation where their Democratic opponents have raked in four-times as much cash as they have. Democrats are so confident about the race in Colorado that they’re pulling advertising spots and diverting the funds to other contests. After all, why spend the party’s cash when the candidate has enough himself?
Normally, a Republican senator wouldn’t dare cross Trump, who has largely molded the GOP into his own personal army. Today, however, more of those very same Republicans are speaking out more forcefully. Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the more independently-minded GOPers in the Senate, was recently caught talking about Trump as a poor leader who dances with white supremacists, “spends like a drunken sailor,” and alienates women and young people to such an extent that they may become permanent Democrats. Sen. Mitch McConnnell, the top Republican on Capitol Hill, all but admitted that Trump wasn’t taking the COVID-19 pandemic as seriously as he should. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s favorite golfing-buddies who is also in a surprisingly close race of his own, has acknowledged there is a decent chance Democrats could win the White House in two weeks. On a normal day, a basic observation like this would be avoided because Trump would take it as a personal insult and a sign of disloyalty; now, they are more common.
Other Republicans are using a different argument to keep a hold on their majority: if Biden wins, a GOP Senate is the only institution in Washington, D.C. that would serve as a check on a Biden presidency. This is not a novel argument; both parties have used it before in order to drive more of their voters to the polls. But it’s an especially awkward one to make this year since the whole scenario is based on Trump becoming the first one-term President in 28 years. Last year, Republican candidates and Republican groups wouldn’t be caught dead using this talking point. But a lot has changed over the last 10 months, including the political landscape.
Usually, Senate Republicans choose to express their disagreements, reservations, and regrets about Donald Trump in private. This choice was itself a powerful illustration of Trump’s power. But with the Republican Party facing the prospect of Americans cutting their Senate majority short after six years, some Republicans are willing to do the previously unthinkable if it increases the odds of saving their own skins.