President is the leader of the Republican Party and has announced plans to run for re-election in 2020.
Yet for some Republicans, the question of whether to endorse him isn’t the easiest to answer.
“Why did you ask me that?” quipped Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who announced his retirement this month.
“Yeah, sure,” he said about endorsing Trump, before quickly emphasizing he’s more focused on policy work. “At this point I have some things I’d like to get done,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who could face a tough race in a state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, declined to comment on Trump’s re-election bid.
“I said I was going to worry about 2020 in 2020,” Collins said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who could have a competitive race in 2022, says he is focused on rebuilding the state Republican Party in Wisconsin, which got crushed in the midterm election.
“That’s still a light year away,” he said of 2020. “What I’m doing, because I’m kind of the last man standing in Wisconsin, it’s about how do we continue to build our party and really develop a really good grassroots effort. We got wiped out statewide last time so that’s where I’m focusing my attention.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has frequently criticized Trump on foreign policy and trade issues, said, “I don’t talk about stuff like that right here” when asked outside the Senate chamber about whether he would endorse Trump.
Tensions between Trump and his party have ebbed and flowed over the years but are on the rise again after the longest government shutdown in history — which some Senate Republicans saw as a self-inflicted disaster for their party driven by Trump.
The Senate passed a measure by voice vote in December that would have prevented the shutdown, only to see Trump reverse course.
A number of Republicans have also expressed growing frustrations with Trump’s foreign policy moves. On Thursday, 43 Republicans voted to end debate on an amendment warning Trump against drawing down troops in Syria and Afghanistan.
Trump remains the leader of his party and is a power in primaries.
During one stretch this past summer, Trump went 11 for 11 in endorsing GOP candidates who went on to win their primaries, according to a tally by the Washington Post. The president sent out a scorching tweet against Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) on his primary day and watched as Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, defeated the longtime politician and former governor.
Yet Arrington lost her general election contest in November, underscoring that while Trump is a power in primaries, he also has a toxicity that is costing his party some elections.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) are making noises about challenging Trump in 2020. Neither seems too likely to defeat Trump and Republican office holders are hardly rushing to back them.
Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), one of two Senate GOP incumbents running for reelection in a state won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, publicly endorsed Trump this week, telling the Independent Journal Review that he was throwing his support behind Trump because “we’ve done some good things for Colorado.”
Two other Republicans who will be Democratic targets next year were also enthusiastic about Trump.
“Absolutely. Look at the jobs report. Look at the economy. I think he’s done a wonderful job so, yes, certainly I would,” Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) said when asked about endorsing Trump.
Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), another potentially vulnerable Republican, acknowledged he had “a few instances where I disagreed with his style” but noted “on policy, for the most part, we’re in alignment.”
“I would discourage anybody from running against him in a primary,” he said. “If you take a look at his policies on tax reform, if you take a look at his priorities on trying to get health care to a place where it will work …. On substance I’m with him.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a fourth Republican up for reelection next year, said he would “absolutely” endorse Trump.
“With these results? Yes sir. This is the best economic turnaround in U.S. history,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is up for re-election and faced a primary challenge in his 2014 race, also set an example for his colleagues by announcing his support for Trump early out of the gate.
“I think he can go to the American people in 2020 and correctly claim extraordinary success,” McConnell told The Washington Examiner in October.
But Trump appears to have more work to do to win over members of his party who have criticized his conduct or broken with him on major policy questions.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who famously warned his party against nominating Trump in March of 2016, told CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month that he hadn’t yet decided who he would endorse in 2020 although he ruled out mounting a primary challenge himself.
“I’m going to see what the alternatives are,” he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted against Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s controversial nominee to the Supreme Court, declined to comment.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who had misgivings in 2017 over how Trump responded to violence at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, predicted that Trump won’t need his endorsement.
“He’s not going to have a primary so there won’t be a decision to make,” he said.
But just because Senate Republicans aren’t ready to endorse Trump today doesn’t mean they won’t do so at a future date or that they are necessarily harboring qualms about his leadership.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Trump is very popular in his home state but believes “it’s way too early” to be discussing an endorsement.
“I just haven’t gotten to the point I’m endorsing at this stage of the game.”
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