Democrats See Senate Republicans Vulnerable Due to Trump’s Russia Problem

Trump’s continued reluctance to criticize Moscow over bounties has given Democratic contenders a fresh opening to attack lawmakers loyal to the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with his cabinet in the East Room of the White House on May 19 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with his cabinet in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 19. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s lack of response to reports of Russian bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan is giving Democratic Senate contenders hope that they’ve found a vulnerable flank to challenge White House loyalists in contested races.

Though lawmakers and political analysts still expect kitchen-table issues like the economy and the pandemic to dictate the balance of power in the Senate come November, the Trump administration’s continued appeasement of Russia, coupled with limited criticism from most Republicans in the upper chamber, appears to offer an opening for a foreign-policy challenge more understandable for voters than the convoluted Russia influence investigations that dominated Trump’s first term or the confusing Ukraine scandal that culminated in Trump’s impeachment this year.

Speaking to Axios on HBO in an interview released Tuesday, Trump said he did not raise the issue of alleged bounties on a recent call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, dismissing the reports as “fake news.” He also claimed to be unaware that Russia is arming the Taliban, even though top U.S. generals have said so publicly. With U.S. troop deaths in question, Trump’s decision to hold back on criticizing Russia has given Democrats a fresh opening.

“I’m not sure a lot of Americans were able to follow completely the story of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, but every American understands what a bounty is,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told Foreign Policy. “Anybody that has a relative or a friend in the U.S. military, their confidence in the president by this one disclosure has been gravely shaken.”

Because most Republican senators have toed the White House line, Trump’s continued dismissal of the affair could give more ammunition to down-ballot Democrats.

In Arizona, Mark Kelly leveraged his combat background to push for further investigation into the bounties and suggested economic retaliation against Russia. In North Carolina, contender Cal Cunningham is ahead of incumbent Thom Tillis in the polls and said Russia should not be invited to the next G-7 summit, as Trump intended. Tillis, who moved toward defending Trump during the impeachment inquiry to survive a stiff primary challenge, has now called for the Russian military intelligence unit that sponsored the bounties to be named as a state sponsor of terrorism if the reports of bounties are confirmed.

In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Amy McGrath has pulled no punches in highlighting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s silence on the bounties, noting in a statement that he “has shirked his war powers duties and proven unwilling to hold the executive branch accountable.” McGrath, who is currently polling 22 points behind McConnell, argued that his paralysis is an affront to U.S. troops and a “dereliction of duty” for the top Republican in the Senate.

Texas contender M.J. Hegar also made swings at incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s tepid comments in this regard, noting in a tweet: “He’s afraid to stand up to his political bosses even when the lives of our soldiers are on the line.”

The controversy over the bounties, as well as Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has dragged down poll numbers for Republicans in battleground states, according to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll. Democrats expect embattled members of Congress to belatedly try to distance themselves from the White House across a range of issues.

“You’ll find the Republican senators trying to distance themselves from Donald Trump,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the last election cycle. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to run away from the fact that they’ve been joined at the hip with Donald Trump.”

That’s especially true for several Republican insurgents who used Trump’s endorsement to vault over establishment Republican candidates. In Alabama, Trump officially endorsed former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who won a primary runoff against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Tuberville’s primary win, despite no political experience and a limited platform, “speaks to the pull of Trump in Alabama,” said Allen Linken, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. Aligning himself with the president directly on foreign-policy controversies, Tuberville called Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation as a betrayal of Trump.

Foreign-policy liabilities for senators are coupled with those of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, as cases have spiked in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, and Iowa, which all have Republican incumbents fighting competitive Senate races.

“There’s a deep issue regarding the question of whether or not these senators are exercising their independent judgment for the good of their states and the country,” Van Hollen said. “I think the issues regarding national security and foreign policy will be part of the narrative for how they have become rubber stamps for Donald Trump.”

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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