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 month's end, 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 condition of anonymity to describe internal GOP thinking, and each said Republican prospects for holding the Senate remain viable. Yet their willingness to discuss the problem, plus carefully worded assessments by Republican senators and others in the party, highlight GOP worries about a June that saw Trump feed inflammatory rhetoric to his deeply conservative base, risking support from more moderate voters.
“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 is the reason the president is sitting behind in the polls right now, because he can’t stay on a message that is a unified message and one that is a positive one for the country,” Rick Santorum, a former GOP Pennsylvania senator who challenged Trump for the party's 2016 presidential nomination, said Tuesday on CNN's “New Day.”
Republicans control the Senate 53-47. Democrats must gain three seats to gain 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 now 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 a modest crowd that Trump aides said would be far larger 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 reelection. 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% 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 have posted strong fundraising numbers this year, including Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Mark Kelly in Arizona and Sara Gideon in Maine. Democrat Jaime Harrison, waging an uphill fight to topple three-term South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, said he'd raised nearly $14 million over the past three months.
To Democrats, June merely underscores how this fall's presidential and congressional elections will be dominated by how Trump is viewed by voters.
“I think to a significant degree, this campaign is about Donald Trump vs. Donald Trump. And I think Trump is losing," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 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."
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”