Sen. John Cornyn prides himself on winning a large share of the Latino vote in Texas, campaigning in the Asian American community and running ads in three languages. It’s a crucial strategy for a Republican in a diverse state — and one that is sharply divergent from President Donald Trump’s approach.
So as Cornyn seeks reelection next year with Trump on the ballot, he’s making sure that he isn’t dragged down by the president’s more inflammatory politics, exemplified again this week by his racist tweets telling four liberal Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from.
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“I don’t have any trouble speaking to any of my constituents. They don’t confuse me with what’s happening up here in D.C.,” said Cornyn, who has gently criticized Trump’s battle as a “mistake” that unified Democrats. “I know we are consumed by this here, but it doesn’t consume my constituents when I go back home.”
It’s a common refrain for Republicans trying to deflect a Trump-fueled firestorm and highlights the dilemma that the party will face for months to come.
GOP lawmakers, especially those facing potentially tough reelection bids, need to create independent identities to win over Trump skeptics. But if they break too fiercely with the president, he and his grassroots supporters might turn on them, with disastrous political consequences.
In fact, Trump has already been angry about what he sees as a weak defense by Republican members of Congress and has informed at least two lawmakers of his dissatisfaction, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
That reaction explains the ginger response to Trump by Republicans up for reelection in difficult races, who are caught between condemning the president’s words and facing his wrath.
“I wouldn’t have done it. That’s not what we ought to focus on in this country,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) of Trump’s tweets. Gardner is up for reelection in an increasingly blue state. And while he’s endorsed Trump in 2020, he says he disagrees with Trump’s rhetoric: “We should focus on ways to bring people together.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has not endorsed Trump, has called on the president to withdraw his “way out of bounds and offensive” tweet.
But Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who hails from a diverse state and is also vulnerable in 2020, declined to discuss the matter. Others who did take on Trump’s comments have made clear that their distaste for the president’s style of attack does not affect their support for him.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Monday that Trump’s tweets are racist because the four congresswomen under attack are “American citizens.” But she made clear that otherwise there is no daylight between her and the president.
“I’d love for you to make that clear. While I don’t appreciate the tweets, but I still support the president,” Ernst said on Tuesday. Their political alliance is unharmed “because if you just look at his policies and what he’s been able to do. Our economy is booming, and we’re really doing quite well as Americans.”
Four House Republicans voted with Democrats on Tuesday to condemn Trump’s remarks as racist, and there is no appetite in the Senate to take up the issue. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who criticized Trump repeatedly on Monday and Tuesday, said he would likely not join Democrats as a co-sponsor in the Senate.
And even though Romney might not support Trump, it’s not because of the president’s incendiary battle with the House Democrats: “I’ve said for several months now that I may not endorse now in the presidential race. And I haven’t considered the tweets in that regard.”
Meanwhile, others rallied behind Trump as strongly as possible, sensing an opportunity to stand with a president who loathes criticism from his own party.
“These are radical leftists in the House,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who faces reelection next year. “Their silence on issues of domestic terrorism with antifa and so forth has to be confronted.”
That Trump faced no congressional GOP defections from his 2020 campaign and scattered criticism this week amid his fight with Democrats who he says “hate our country” is no surprise. There are plenty of political headstones to remind Republicans just how difficult it can be to survive without Trump’s support.
Former Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his primary in 2018 after launching much criticism against Trump, and former Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee retired rather than try to juggle their elections with their dislike for the president’s brand of politics.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis began building a brand that was sometimes at odds with Trump, writing an op-ed, slamming the president’s border emergency and working with Democrats on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. But after facing the possibility of a primary challenge, Tillis is now one of the president’s toughest defenders, and Trump’s tweets did not rattle him.
“No, I don’t think he’s a racist, and no, I don’t think he’s a xenophobe. He’s got a mom and a wife who are immigrants,” Tillis said Tuesday. Trump’s frustration stems from “a lack of attention to some of the most incredible statements coming out of the mouths of some of the folks in the liberal progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”
Yet at the same time, those who hug him too closely can lose independent voters: The GOP lost its House majority in the nation’s Trump-skeptical suburbs, and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) was defeated after converting himself from a Trump critic into a cheerleader.
That’s why Republicans say they want to talk issues, not personalities, in the run-up to the election.
“I really think that if we can just focus less on people, more on policies, Republicans are going to be in a very good position in these Senate races,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.
Democrats seem wary of making their 2020 campaigns to take the Senate, hold the House and win the White House all about the president. Their attempts to make 2016 a referendum on Trump failed, and party leaders seem eager to run a replay of their successful 2018 races, with health care as the centerpiece and Trump secondary.
“The president has his own agenda, which clearly is chaotic and at the same time is racist and bigoted for his own political gain,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who chairs the Democrats’ campaign arm. Voters “don’t like it. But they also want somebody who is going to be calling that out and at the same time is fighting for what they care about.”
There’s another factor at play: If Trump’s battles with the four women of color in the House came in October 2020, the reaction would be quite different in both parties. That there are 16 more months until the election is a reminder that Trump could still unleash a dozen new controversies before then.
“The thing I think we’ve learned from experience with this president and the administration is that the news cycle changes pretty quickly,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the GOP whip. “I don’t expect we’ll be talking about this.”