In early 2020, Republicans in the US Senate – with the exception of Senator Mitt Romney – voted not to impeach President Donald Trump. As the scheduled date of the next presidential elections (November 3, 2020) approaches, however, not all Republicans appear to be ready to line up behind their president, who is seeking a second term. Criticism of Trump from within the Republican Party has often outstripped that from his Democratic opponents.

The President’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the widespread protests against the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis in May, the slowdown of the economic boom that Trump had boasted so proudly of during his State of the Union address to Congress in February, and the high unemployment rate have made Republicans fearful that they could lose the presidential race. They are also worried that they could lose their three-seat majority in the Senate as well as control over various states, as 23 of the 53 Republican senators will be defending their seats during the congressional elections also scheduled for November.

Signs that Republican support is waning

There have been many indications in recent months that Republican support for Trump is on the decline. The first indicator is the opposition voiced by a number of Republican senators to Trump’s decision to reopen the US economy at a time when many states were still experiencing a rise in coronavirus infections, a decision that was also opposed by many US health experts and professionals. In response, Republican and Democrat senators from a number of Midwestern states announced that they were setting up coalition to assess their future steps and to decide whether they would begin to gradually reopen their economies in accordance with Trump’s three-step plan.

The second indicator is the increasing public criticism from a number of prominent Republican leaders regarding the President’s handling of the internal and external crises facing the country. Many Republicans opposed Trump’s call for the armed forces to be sent in to deal with protesters and his criticism of former defense ministry officials, most notably former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for rejecting the idea. Some Republicans have accused Trump of misusing his executive power, stating that he appears disinterested in uniting the American people or even pretending to be seen to do so. Instead, they claim, Trump is attempting to divide Americans at the time when the nation most needs a leader capable of uniting the people in the face of numerous crises.

Senior party leaders have also publicly criticized the President’s handling of intelligence reports indicating that Russia financially rewarded Taliban fighters for killing US soldiers in Afghanistan and have called on Trump to be stricter on Russia. Furthermore, while Trump refused to wear a protective mask, many Republican lawmakers, led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, urged Americans to don face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Third, Republicans have formed a number of political groups and working committees to prevent Trump from winning a second term. The Lincoln Project, established by a group of Republicans, is aimed at persuading US voters not to vote for Trump during the upcoming elections. The former US president’s name was chosen for the project given his crucial role in unifying the country following the Civil War.

Fourth, a number of Republican officials who worked under previous Republican administrations have announced that they will vote for Trump’s Democrat opponent, Joe Biden, based on the belief that Trump’s re-election would harm US national security.

Fifth, Republican senators may pass a bill that includes a provision to rename military bases bearing the names of confederate soldiers, despite the President’s threat to veto the legislation. Evidence suggests that support for the bill could enable the Senate to bypass the President’s veto. 

Reasons behind the decline in Republican support for Trump

Republican support for Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections has declined as a result of growing opposition to his policies on a number of internal issues, in particular his management of the coronavirus crisis, his initial refusal to acknowledge the threat despite it being declared a global pandemic, his insistence on reducing the number of tests in order to make the infection rate appear lower, and his repetition of unscientific advice on how to handle the virus. Speaking on US Independence Day from the South Lawn of the White House, Trump once again attempted to underplay the threat posed by the virus, saying that 99% of cases were “totally harmless”, a claim refuted by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration the following day. Trump’s handling of the virus therefore appears to have spun out of control.

Many Republicans have also refused to accept the racist rhetoric used by Trump at a time when protests were escalating in many US states in response to the death of George Floyd. They have also opposed Trump’s efforts to use culture wars and racist gestures to garner support among the electorate. Some Republicans even believe that the President violated the US Constitution in his handling of the Black Lives Matter protests, by allowing force to be used against protesters and by dismissing a number of public inspectors without providing Congress with a convincing reason for doing so.

A number of Republicans running in the congressional elections in November are seeking to distance themselves from Trump, as opinion polls show that the President is now ranked second after Biden, who has a double-digit lead. Biden is even predicted to win a number of key swing states which Trump won by a large majority in the 2016 elections. In addition, the former vice-president has now beaten Trump with regard to election fundraising for the second month in a row.

Consequences for Republicans during the elections

Many observers believe that the upcoming elections will serve as a referendum on the President’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the economic crisis and high unemployment rate. Trump has therefore become a burden for Republicans seeking to expand their appeal beyond the President’s usual support base.

Nonetheless, ever since his nomination as Republican candidate for the 2016 elections, Trump has strengthened his position within the party, which has made it difficult for Republican Congress members to distance themselves from him without antagonizing his electoral base and running the risk of losing voters who are considering voting for the party yet who do not support Trump.

Some Republicans running in the congressional elections have attempted to differentiate themselves from Trump and his presidential record, focusing instead on their personal and local achievements and on issues on which they were able to act independently of the President, in an attempt not to explicitly alienate Republican voters loyal to Trump in their states.

According to the most recent analyses, Trump’s decline in the opinion polls and his divisive public tweets are expected to further fuel the crisis within the Republican Party, decrease support among Republican senators for his presidential campaign, and make it harder for the party to hold onto its majority in the Senate. In this context, a number of Republican strategists are hoping that the party’s losses in the upcoming elections will be more akin to those in the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney lost the presidential race and the Republicans lost only two seats in the Senate, rather than being a resounding defeat as happened in the 2008 elections, in which John McCain lost the presidential race and the party lost eight seats in the Senate, which allowed the Democrats to seize control of the White House and both chambers of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives).

* Researcher specializing in US affairs. 

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