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OPINION

Republican senators socially distance from Trump

With their Senate majority at risk, GOP senators aren’t choosing country over party. They’re choosing party over a presidency in ruins.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Globe File photos

Who says Republicans won’t practice social distancing? With Election Day looming, some GOP senators are scrambling to get as far away from President Trump as possible.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas now claims he “privately” disagreed with some of Trump’s policies. In a recent conference call with constituents, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska delivered a withering assessment of the president, saying Trump “kisses dictators’ butts,” mocks evangelical Christians, and “flirted with white supremacists.” Asked during a debate whether she’s proud of her support for Trump, Senator Martha McSally of Arizona instead answered a question no one asked about her pride in “fighting for Arizonans.”

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Like Trump, each of these senators is vying for reelection next month. And, like the president himself, they’re trying to distance themselves from Trump, especially his noxious non-response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Otherwise, they fear, he may not only drag down political futures, but also Republican control of the Senate.

In a statement to the Washington Examiner, which broke the story about Sasse’s scathing Trump rebuke, James Wegmann, the senator’s spokesman, said, “Even though the Beltway is obsessing exclusively about the presidential race, control of the Senate is ten times more important.”

Republican senators aren’t choosing country over party. They’re choosing party over a presidency in ruins. As the second wave (or is it the third wave?) of the coronavirus pandemic envelops the country, Trump is busy running a campaign of lies, racism, insults, and threats. If the latest polls showing Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, with a sizable lead are any indication, voters are getting fed up with this reality show. And GOP senators don’t want to get caught in the undertow of Trump’s plummeting ratings.

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Still, Cornyn’s sudden turn is surprising. For nearly four years, he’s been a steadfast Trump man. Now he’s only three points ahead of his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, a political novice. Less than two weeks ago, Hegar, a decorated Air Force combat pilot who served three tours in Afghanistan, was trailing Cornyn by nine points. Now, she’s raising twice as much money, and has more cash on hand for the final stretch.

So Cornyn is trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that he has, in fact, disagreed with the president.

“But when I have had differences of opinion, which I have, [I] do that privately,” Cornyn said last week during a meeting with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s editorial board. “I have found that has allowed me to be much more effective, I believe, than to satisfy those who say I ought to call him out or get into a public fight with him.”

He also described his relationship with Trump as “maybe like a lot of women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.” Except Cornyn, and every other Republican senator knew exactly who they were marrying. It’s why they supported him. Now they’re balking because the president’s anger, incitements of violence, and his lethal disinterest in the pandemic are threatening to burn down their party.

Four years ago, they lined up with Trump. He would stack the courts with right-wing ideologues. With the same enemies — people of color, immigrants, those who fought for social justice and against white supremacy — Trump could blather all the ugly things they deeply believe but were too politically savvy to say out loud.

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Yet a malevolent blowhard makes a lousy brand ambassador. Every time Republicans stayed silent as Trump allowed migrant children to be locked in cages, disparaged the military, coddled white supremacists, and sabotaged any effort to control the pandemic, his wrathful face became their own. And what they see now when they look in the mirror is their 53-47 Senate majority slipping away.

When he was torching Trump, Sasse, whose Senate seat is probably secure, said, “The debate is not going to be, ‘Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump?’ It’s going to be, ‘What the heck were any of us thinking, that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?’ ”

He added, “We are staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami.”

That’s what happened in 2018 when Democrats easily reclaimed the House. This time, an even greater monster blue wave may swallow both the Senate and White House — and wash out Trump and his craven Republican enablers and conspirators for good.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.