WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s June began with his Bible-clutching photo op outside a church after authorities used chemicals and batons to scatter peaceful demonstrators. It never got less jarring or divisive.
By the time it ended, he was downplaying a coronavirus pandemic upsurge that was forcing Western and Southern states to throttle back their partial reopening of businesses. And Republican strategists already straining to retain Senate control in November’s elections were conceding that Trump’s performance could make it harder to defend their majority.
One said key Republicans were telling Trump they’re worried about his campaign and he should heed polls showing him in trouble. Another pointed to surveys showing diminished public optimism and many voters’ views that Trump is poorly managing the surging virus and languishing economy. Still another said Republicans worry the GOP brand of cutting taxes could be overshadowed by Trump’s drive to defend Confederate monuments.
All spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s internal thinking, including the GOP’s view that the Senate majority remains viable. Yet their willingness to discuss the problem, plus carefully worded assessments by Republican senators, highlight GOP worries about the impact of Trump using June to relentlessly cater to his deeply conservative base without broadening his appeal by taking a more moderate tone.
“In all elections, the political environment shapes how things come out, and sometimes you can’t control that,” No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Thune of South Dakota said last week. He said GOP candidates “need to do what they need to do to win. And in some states, he will be a benefit in some parts of the country. In other parts of the country, less so.”
“It’s been a little bit of a rough patch, but there’s a lot of good stuff to be talking about,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, citing strong June rehiring numbers and a revamped North American trade deal. Cramer said candidates should focus on their own issues “and to the degree that includes their work with the president, fine. To the degree that it’s independent, that’s fine, too.”
Republicans control the Senate 53-47. Democrats must gain three seats to win the majority if they win the White House because of the vice president’s tie-breaking vote, four if they don’t.
Even measured against the warp-speed news cycle that’s become routine under Trump, June was remarkable.
He repeatedly used cataclysmic language to denigrate nationwide protests for social justice, mostly peaceful gatherings that he cast as mobs unleashing violence. He called for the U.S. military to “dominate” the streets of American cities, drawing rebukes from military leaders and his own current and former top Defense Department officials.
He held his first campaign rally in the coronavirus era in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where many in the small crowd wore no masks. Critics called him racially insensitive for choosing a city that saw one of the 20th century’s worst spasms of racial violence and originally scheduling it on June 19, date of the Juneteenth holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.
John Bolton, his former national security adviser, released a book claiming Trump asked China’s president to buy more farm products to bolster his re-election. Trump also used the month to refuse to erase Confederate commanders’ names from U.S. military bases, retweet an image of a Florida supporter shouting, “White power!” and question reports that Russia had placed bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“Republican Senate candidates will have to defend things President Trump says and does between now and Election Day,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and longtime Trump foe. Cooper said many Trump positions “are toxic to mainstream voters and will make down-ballot Republican candidates equally toxic.”
Trump’s June outbursts came as polls showed him trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden nationally and in several battleground states. A Gallup poll released Monday showed Trump with a dangerously low 38 percent job approval rating.
Trump trailed in nearly all 2016 surveys until late in that campaign.
Both parties envision tight Senate races in closely divided states where moderate suburban voters, who have abandoned the GOP over Trump’s penchant for sowing discord, could be key. These include Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona, often seen as their party’s most vulnerable incumbents.
Also facing competitive reelections are GOP Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Steve Daines of Montana. Both Georgia Republican senators, particularly Kelly Loeffler, may see close races. Sen. Doug Jones of solidly Republican Alabama is considered Democrats’ most endangered incumbent.
Republicans must defend 23 Senate seats to Democrats’ 12. But several Democratic challengers posted strong fundraising numbers earlier this year, including Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Sara Gideon in Maine.
To Democrats, June merely underscores how this fall’s presidential and congressional elections will be largely dominated by how Trump is viewed by voters.
“I think to a significant degree, this campaign is about Donald Trump versus Donald Trump. And I think Trump is losing,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who lost a bid for this year’s Democratic presidential nod.
Stewart Boss, spokesperson of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said GOP candidates would be damaged because they’ve been “unwilling to be a check” on Trump. Jesse Hunt, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans “are well positioned to draw important contrasts” against Democrats.
Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior political strategist, said Trump has enunciated “zero” about his second-term agenda and should correct that. He said he believes independent swing voters abandoning Trump will be willing to back GOP Senate candidates and expressed cautious optimism.
“It’s going to be tough” to hold the Senate, Reed said. “Republicans are playing defense across the board, but they’re good defensive players.”
Story by Alan Fram.