Trump Quandary Splits Vulnerable Republicans Ahead of Convention

  • Some senators with tough re-elections are warming to nominee
  • Others are trying to keep their distance from billionaire

Cleveland GOP Convention: Here’s What Will Happen

Republicans, who already faced a challenge in keeping control of the U.S. Senate next year, are now grappling with how to navigate having Donald Trump as their standard-bearer.

Ahead of next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Senate Republicans facing tough re-election campaigns have chosen widely varying ways of dealing with the Trump phenomenon. A few, like Richard Burr of North Carolina, are embracing him in hopes of tapping the energy he brought to the primaries, while one, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has outright rejected him.  

Richard Burr

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Most, led by Rob Portman of Ohio, are trying to straddle the line, wary of getting burned by a Trump backlash but not willing to risk alienating the billionaire’s fervent base.

Even before it became clear Trump would be the nominee, Democrats were already hoping to retake the Senate, with a number of Republicans up for re-election in a handful of states won twice by President Barack Obama. With Trump in the race, they’re now hoping to expand the map to states like Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana, where former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and his $9.3 million campaign account jumped into the race on Wednesday.

Republicans control the Senate 54-46. Democrats need to pick up five seats to guarantee them the Senate majority.

Those dynamics leave Republicans struggling to navigate Trump’s choppy wake.

Friendly Caucus

Burr has been among the more pro-Trump senators running for re-election, though like many others has criticized some of his remarks. He plans to go to Cleveland for a day and is optimistic about Trump’s chances against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"I feel really good about that. Donald Trump has upside, she doesn’t seem to," he said. "So, you know, why wouldn’t I be optimistic?"

"I think he will do well in a lot of states because of the anger and the angst," Burr added. "To get that upside, he’s got to transform from how he’s stating what he’s stating to presenting a vision of where Americans want to go."

Another Trump backer is Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has taken Democratic heat for blocking a hearing for Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia’s death. Republicans hope that Trump will get to fill the seat with another conservative.

Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has also been friendly toward Trump, once remarking the pair could campaign as "Ronald and Donald." 

He and Trump share some traits -- both are businessmen-turned-politicians, with Johnson swept into office in the 2010 Tea Party wave. But Johnson is an underdog to win re-election against former Senator Russ Feingold, and perhaps his best hope is that Trump can overcome Johnson’s terrible poll numbers and harness a populist wave of new voters in the fall. 

Johnson was the first to speak at a meeting last week between Republican senators and Trump in Washington, urging him to adopt Speaker Paul Ryan’s governing agenda. Trump didn’t quite say yes, but Johnson came out of the meeting singing Trump’s praises nonetheless. Even so, Johnson’s campaign said this week that he will skip the convention.

Wary Caucus

Portman might be the chairman of the sizable Wary Caucus. 

The Ohio Republican said he supports Trump -- even calling the candidate by name in contrast with others who refer to the candidate only indirectly. But Portman has been critical of a number of Trump’s statements and policies, while trying to focus on local Ohio issues as much as possible.

Portman will stop by the convention in his home state, but will spend much of his time at a long planned "mini-convention" of his own, building a Habitat for Humanity home and holding events for veterans and his campaign volunteers outside of the official events. Portman said he won’t be speaking at the national convention and will hold an independent viewing rally to watch Trump accept the nomination.

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has likewise had a tortured relationship with the party’s nominee, who dominated her state’s primary. Ayotte has said she supports Trump, but hasn’t "endorsed" him, which Democrats slam as a distinction without a difference. 

Ayotte, like Portman, has to avoid alienating Trump voters. Unlike Portman, she has the luxury of being able to avoid Cleveland and stay home and campaign.

She wouldn’t even commit to watching it on a DVR.

"Then I would be fighting with my 8-year-old and my 11-year-old over their favorite kid shows. I mean, I never get any TV on my own," she quipped.

Leaning Away

Many other Republicans are doing their best to avoid uttering Trump’s name.

Roy Blunt of Missouri, normally happy to talk to reporters but facing a stiffer than expected re-election fight, has been among those hostile to getting Trump questions. He says he’d be happy to have Trump come to Missouri to campaign, but that he will skip the convention, citing his upcoming primary.

Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has also been in a pickle as a top blue-state Democratic target. The former Club for Growth president has yet to back Trump, telling reporters after the meeting with Republican senators that he still hadn’t made up his mind. 

Toomey has been critical of Trump, but also has sounded exasperated at the constant Trump questions he fields from reporters. Toomey said he will be campaigning in Pennsylvania next week. "I’m booked solid," he said.

John McCain of Arizona, meanwhile, faces an Aug. 30 primary -- just a few months before the general election -- forcing a bit of a high-wire act. Trump’s criticism of McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War remains a sore spot, and McCain announced months ago he would skip the convention to focus on his re-election. 

McCain, meanwhile, has been far from his usually loquacious self in recent months, and questions about Trump typically result in gruff answers. He issued a statement during the primaries agreeing with a blistering critique of Trump by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, but didn’t follow Romney into #NeverTrump land after he sewed up the nomination.

Then there’s Marco Rubio of Florida, dubbed ‘Little Marco’ by Trump during a nasty stretch of the presidential primary. Rubio at one point told reporters he would speak at the convention if asked, but clarified that he wouldn’t be speaking on behalf of Trump. 

After suddenly deciding to run for re-election a few weeks ago, Rubio decided to skip the convention entirely. He has a convenient excuse, with a campaign to get up and running. 

Rubio has been blistering in his critiques of Trump, but still plans to vote for him as preferable to Clinton. Of course, since Trump won Florida handily in the primary, it would be risky for Rubio to reject him completely.

#NeverTrump

Kirk, perhaps the most endangered Senate Republican, is in a class of his own, withdrawing his support from Trump in June after Trump’s remarks about a judge’s Mexican heritage. 

The Illinois Republican slammed those remarks as un-American and also said Trump doesn’t have the temperament to command the military and control the nuclear arsenal.

Needless to say, Kirk won’t be in Cleveland.

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