Republicans have some serious pick-up opportunities in the Senate — so why do they keep giving ammunition to Democrats?
There are more than two dozen Senate Democrats and Independents up for re-election in November. Ten of those are in states President Trump won, five of those by double-digits with the margin of victory going as high as 42 percentage points. That’s compared to just nine GOP-held seats that are up; and only four of those are considered even slightly competitive.
Yet, the Trump Administration and Republican lawmakers have been prone to say things that are unhelpful to the candidates they back or legislation they championed. This week alone, the vice president praised a controversial former sheriff in Arizona who is running against a sitting GOP congresswoman. And a former Trump cabinet official and sitting GOP senator criticized Republicans’ major legislative achievement, tax reform.
Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a "tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a tax event in Tempe, Ariz. Tuesday night. "Im honored to have you here." Pence said. He did not give the same level of praise to Rep. Martha McSally, one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s key recruits who Republican and Democratic strategists say has the best chance of beating likely Democratic candidate Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
Arpaio is Arizona’s controversial former sheriff who was found guilty of criminal contempt for “flagrant disregard” of a federal judges order in a racial-profiling case but was pardoned by President Trump, against the wishes of some prominent Republicans.
Arpaio is now running for the Republican nomination for Sen. Jeff Flake’s senate seat. Flake announced he would not seek re-election after it became clear his criticism of the president had cost him the path to the nomination. But establishment Republicans want McSally to represent the party in the general, instead of Arpaio or former state senator Kelli Ward, who was backed by Steve Bannon. While Pences praise of Arpaio was more effusive, he did mention McSally as one of a list of “great conservative representatives’ and attended a fundraiser with McSally later Tuesday.
Bruce Haynes said Pence’s comments about Arpaio are the type of thing that could be used as a “semi-endorsement” in the GOP primary where both the president and vice president hold sway. Haynes is a Republican strategist and who worked on the Republican National Committees 2008 presidential independent expenditure campaign.
“That’s something that you see on a television screen in a 30-second-ad,” Haynes said.
By Wednesday afternoon Arpaio was touting Pences words: "I was humbled by the kind words from @VP and the standing ovations from the packed house at the @AmericaFirstPol rally yesterday."
“I think the Trump Administration propping up people like Joe Arpaio is not helpful to the Republican party,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist. “If McSally is our nominee we have a good chance of keeping the seat. If it’s anybody else, the Democrats will pick up at least one seat.”
"Mike Pence’s all-but-endorsement of Joe Arpaio proves that there is no end in sight for the divisive and increasingly nasty fight for the GOP nomination,” said Drew Anderson, the spokesman for the Arizona Democrats.
Pence isn’t the only one to take away mojo from the GOP Senate candidates. Three sitting GOP senators have praised the Democrats running in their states, even if they’ve said they’ll ultimately back the Republican candidate.
Sen. Bob Corker, who is retiring at the end of this year, said he had no plans to campaign against the Democrat running to replace him in Tennessee. Corker went so far as to say that former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen “would be good at almost anything he put his mind to doing.”
Conant, who is a former aide to Rubio, said "it’s not unusual for senators to decline to campaign against their colleagues" because they have to work together in the Senate. Nelson didnt go after Rubio in 2016, Conant pointed out.
Meanwhile, some Republicans have bashed their signature legislative accomplishment.
On Tuesday, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who had been a key administration official during Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare last year, said that getting rid of the “individual mandate” — the requirement that people buy health insurance or face a tax penalty — would likely make costs go up for people who remain in the marketplace.
While Republicans were trying to repeal the health care law, Price said the individual mandate was behind the rise in premium costs. GOP lawmakers failed to get rid of the Affordable Care Act in full, but they did nix the “individual mandate” in their tax reform bill which passed late last year.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who is not up for re-election but is a prominent GOP voice, said in a recent interview with The Economist, that the $1.5 trillion tax bill — which he voted for in December — has yet to deliver the relief to the working class, despite the breaks given to Fortune 500 companies.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker,” Rubio said.
By Wednesday both Price and Rubio had walked back the remarks.
In an op-ed for National Review published Wednesday, Rubio said “on the whole, the tax cut bill helps workers. It’s just not massive tax cuts to multinational corporations that do it.”
And in a statement through the Job Creators Network, a pro-business group where he is a health care fellow, Price said “Repealing the individual mandate was exactly the right thing to do. Forcing Americans to buy something they don’t want undermines individual liberty as well as free markets," according to Politico.
But Democrats had already seized on the comments.
“One by one, Republican faithful are coming out of the woodwork to bemoan the GOP tax bill’s negative impact on average Americans,” the North Dakota Democratic Partys Alex Rich said after Price and Rubio’s comments. North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm called the comments the “Republicans’ ‘I-Accidentally-Told-the-Truth Moments.’”
Haynes, the Republican strategist, dismissed the comments as nothing more than a nuisance that would suck up precious campaign time up, but wouldn’t do long-term damage.
“The biggest value for the Democrats is that it disrupts a news cycle and throws you off your message,” Haynes said. “It’ll take (Republican candidates) off message for a day or two but there’s no real long term damage.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, was asked about the comments over the past week and responded by saying the real issue for Republicans comes when President Trump bashes Congress and GOP legislation.
Luntz said base voters take that as a message to kick out members of the Republican establishment. Luntz pointed to Trump’s criticisms of the House Republicans’ repeal bill — which the president called “mean” — and the spending bill which Trump unhappily signed in March
“Every time that Donald Trump attacks Congress,10,000 of his voters decide to vote for the Democrats,” Luntz said. “Every time Trump attacks the Democrats in Congress, they do exactly the opposite.”
“The president doesn’t realize that his own base hears his attack against Congress as an attack against Republican leadership,” he said.