WASHINGTON — A loose association of current and former Republicans working to sink President Donald Trump’s reelection now see another political feat that’s necessary for them to have a shot at reclaiming their party: flipping the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.
The emerging belief, based on more than a dozen interviews, is that defeating Trump alone is insufficient to spur the reckoning required to salvage a party that will almost undoubtedly confront a crossroads if the president loses to Joe Biden this fall. Many argue that GOP senators must pay a steep price for their unabating fealty to Trump, even if it hands Democrats complete control of the federal government.
“The analogy would be in the same way that fire purifies the forest, it needs to be burned to the ground and fundamentally repudiated,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican-turned-independent political strategist who now works for The Lincoln Project, one of the most pugnacious of the anti-Trump GOP groups. “Every one of them should be voted out of office, with the exception of Mitt Romney.”
Not every Republican Trump critic agrees with the unsparing approach, contending that many of the GOP senators most vulnerable in 2020 are the sort of lawmakers who least embody Trump’s worldview.
But the Lincoln Project has nonetheless placed six-figure ad buys against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, as well as Sens. Joni Ernst in Iowa, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Martha McSally in Arizona, as Republicans try to hold onto their narrow three-seat majority.
“They are the only … human beings who had the authority and the ability to keep this president in check constitutionally and politically, and every one of them made a conscious decision to not do so,” said Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman who now advises the Lincoln Project. “The only way to make sure that Trumpism doesn’t continue to rule the Republican Party for years to come is to make sure that we defeat not only the president, but those people who have enabled him.”
In Senate races expected to draw tens of millions of dollars in spending, the relatively small expenditures from the Lincoln Project are unlikely to persuade many voters on their own. And even with bigger budgets, it’s unclear if enough “Never Trump” Republicans — a faction whose ranks are concentrated among former GOP officials and strategists who aren’t necessarily representative of the larger party — reside in these states to make a meaningful difference.
Still, the list of anti-Trump organizations powered by conservatives is growing. Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh told McClatchy that he plans to formally roll out the Bravery Project next week, yet another group that will attempt to reach tens of thousands of disaffected Republicans in the six core presidential battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Walsh, who launched a short and futile primary challenge against Trump, said he believed Republicans should lose control of the U.S. Senate, largely for voting to acquit the president of impeachment earlier this year without holding a formal trial.
“Trump has to lose and every Republican senator up for reelection has to lose because they’ve enabled” him, Walsh said. “Do I want the Democrats to take control of the Senate? No. But I have no choice. To me, these Republicans like Martha McSally and Thom Tillis and Susan Collins have breached their office.”
Walsh added, “It means the Democrats will be in control of D.C. and they will try to push policies I disagree with. That will leave someone like me fighting against their policies. I don’t look forward to that, but that will be the necessary result.”
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning Democrats need to gain three seats — or four, if Sen. Doug Jones falls in deep red Alabama — to wrest control of the upper chamber for the first time in six years if they also win the presidency (the vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate).
Public polling has shown Republican senators trailing in Arizona and Colorado, with margin-of-error races in North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and even Georgia. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is widely expected to remain in Democratic control after the election.
Republican Voters Against Trump, a group using hundreds of personal testimonials from disillusioned GOP voters to argue against a second term for the president, has no plans to choose sides in Senate races. But its leaders acknowledge that an overwhelming Democratic victory up and down the ticket would force Republicans to plot a drastically new course.
“He’s not going away,” Sarah Longwell, RVAT’s strategic director, said of Trump. “His level of power over the party could be determined by what happens in November. If Joe Biden wins in a landslide and takes the Senate down with him, then Republicans are going to realize they’ve made a massive miscalculation.”
But even among the harshest Trump critics within the GOP, not all are convinced working against Republican senators in 2020 is a good idea.
They say doing so undermines their long-term goal of reforming the party to be less like Trump, even if they’re frustrated the Senate GOP hasn’t done more to push back against the president.
“It’s not so easy to make those blanket statements that everybody should be defeated,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and an outspoken Trump critic. “That’s too easy, that’s uncomplicated and a simple way out. We have to be more thoughtful.”
Whitman specifically cited Maine’s Susan Collins as a GOP senator she thinks deserves support of anti-Trump Republicans. Collins and other lawmakers face severe political backlash if they don’t support the president, from McConnell and Republican donors alike, Whitman said, so she understands why the senator hasn’t been more vocal in her opposition to the president.
“It depends on the senator and their record and how often they caved and looked the other way,” Whitman said.
Other anti-Trump Republicans are open to campaigning against GOP senators, but think the targets, so far, miss the mark.
Liz Mair, a veteran GOP strategist, said incumbents like Collins, Gardner and Tillis are the sort of Republicans she wants to build a new party around. But if they lose, while more Trump-like Republicans win, her dream of a post-Trump GOP becomes harder to realize.
“If those people go down, and you have (Jeff) Sessions and (Tom) Cotton as prominent voices in the Senate, you tell me, did America just get more nationalist, or did it get more logical and rational?” she said. Sessions, Trump’s former attorney general, is running for Senate again in Alabama, while Cotton, an Arkansas senator, is seen as a future presidential candidate.
The Lincoln Project’s efforts in particular elicit a special level of condemnation from some Republicans, who view its members as a band of grifters who don’t actually have the party’s best interests at heart.
“They’re basically shooting the hostages,” said David Kochel, a Trump skeptic who is a consultant for Ernst. “This is the problem with the Lincoln Project, they want to make everything about Trump.”
“Fine, oppose Trump,” he added. “But running ads against Republican senators who vote for judges, vote for Mitch McConnell as majority leader and vote for Republican policies, that’s not helping the Republican Party. They’re basically a Democratic-funded super PAC.”
By next week, there will be at least seven Republican-affiliated groups that have been formed to oust a president of their own party.
Bill Kristol, the former editor of the Weekly Standard, who now is an adviser to Republican Voters Against Trump, said the question of whether to punish complicit GOP senators is fueling a robust debate within his circles. But he finds himself coming down on the side of a full repudiation of the current party, especially because he said that even a Senate Democratic majority would be restrained by their own members.
“Life is full of imperfect choices. Even if Democrats have 52 senators, several are going to be John Hickenlooper, Mark Warner, Michael Bennet, who are pretty moderate Democrats,” Kristol said. They still believe in a free market system. I think the cartoon version of the Democratic Party on Fox News and conservative outlets ?— that’s not going to be the party that governs.”
Story by David Catanese and Alex Roarty
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