Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) is in a rather unique position: he’s the only Republican senator up for re-election this year in a state Donald Trump lost. He also has a track record of deep skepticism towards his party’s president, declaring in mid-2016, “Today, I’m opposed to his campaign…. I’ll give him a chance, but at this point, I have no intentions of voting for him.”
That was then; this is now. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the other day that Heller has had a change of heart.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., readily admits he “wasn’t one of the biggest supporters” of President Donald Trump during the 2016 election. “I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me.”
But now that the two know each other better, Heller told the Review-Journal, they have a “much closer relationship.”
Heller, it’s worth noting, is facing a primary challenge from perennial GOP candidate Danny Tarkanian – a contest that the incumbent is apparently concerned about.
But the Nevadan is hardly the only one making comments like these. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of Trump in 2016, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.” The South Carolina senator has since taken a sycophantic turn in the president’s direction.
“I’ve gotten to know him better,” Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” over the holiday weekend. “He asks a lot of good questions.”
Two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, “Regarding the president’s tweeting habits, I haven’t been a fan until this week. I’m warming up to the tweets.”
A day earlier, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), by some measures Trump’s fiercest GOP critic, told Fox News he had “a newfound empathy” for his party’s president and his contempt for American journalists.
At a certain level, all of this is counter-intuitive. By the traditional political rules, an unpopular and scandal-plagued president should expect some of his partisan allies to keep their distance and temper their public support. It’s common sense: a sinking president risks dragging others down with him, so cautious politicians are going to take care not to get too close.
And yet, here we are, watching a historically unpopular president receive increased partisan support, even from prominent skeptics in his own party. Different politicians are likely to have slightly different motivations – Nevada’s Heller, for example, appears to be concerned about his primary fight, while Corker is retiring and faces no comparable pressure – but the broader calculus across much of the GOP is they simply can’t afford to keep Trump at arm’s length.
The Republican base won’t tolerate it, nor will the party’s donors or media allies.
The more the president falls, the argument goes, the worse off the GOP will be this election year. And so, prominent Republicans are, with increasing frequency, linking arms with Trump – defending him, praising him, enabling him, propping him up, and even running interference for him as the Russia scandal intensifies – hoping that the consequences aren’t too severe.