GOP senators see warning signs for Trump after embarrassing week

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

GOP senators see warning signs for Trump after embarrassing week

Senate Republicans see some warning signs flashing after an embarrassing week for former President Trump, despite his strong poll numbers in battleground states against President Biden.

Some Republican lawmakers think Trump needs to step up his appeals to disaffected GOP voters, especially women, after Nikki Haley won 128,000 votes in solidly Republican Indiana despite ending her presidential campaign in early March.

GOP senators also are cringing over some of the salacious details being aired in Trump’s Manhattan hush money trial, where porn actor Stormy Daniels testified at length about her sexual encounter with the former president and described how she spanked him with a magazine.

Daniels’s testimony has put their relationship back in the media spotlight and underscored Trump’s challenges with women voters, which some GOP lawmakers view as his biggest liability heading into November.

“It says a lot about the need for an engagement strategy,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said of Haley winning 21 percent of the vote in the Indiana Republican primary, even though she’s no longer in the race.

“Indiana is going to vote for Trump and vote large, but I think that the Republicans would be well served to dig into that and address it,” he said, noting a substantial portion of the GOP base still has reservations about Trump.

A troubling sign for Trump is that Republicans who show up to vote in primaries tend to be consistent voters, and as such are a key piece of the GOP base. While they are unlikely to vote for Biden, many of them may simply stay home in November.

“My guess is you’re talking a good number of that 20 percent are people that vote consistently. Those folks that vote consistently in the Republican primaries are not going to vote for Joe Biden. They may not vote,” Tillis said.

Tillis said Republicans would be “crazy” to discount the problem and fail to consider ways to address it.

An AP VoteCast found a significant percentage of Republican voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries would be so dissatisfied with Trump as their party’s nominee that they wouldn’t vote for him in November.

Specifically, 20 percent of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa, 34 percent of GOP primary voters in New Hampshire and 25 percent of GOP primary voters in South Carolina said they were so dissatisfied with Trump that they would not vote for him in the general election.

Trump has his biggest problems with college-educated and suburban women voters, and some GOP lawmakers worry the high-profile rehashing of Trump’s alleged affair with a porn actor while he was married to Melania Trump will only further hurt him with that key demographic.

A New York Times/Siena College nationwide poll last month found that only 31 percent of registered women voters think Trump respects women. And the survey found 78 percent of women voters have felt offended by what Trump has said — including 43 percent who said they were recently offended.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who spent 15 years as the director of student ministry at the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma before coming to Congress, said he is dismayed that Trump’s alleged affair with Daniels, including graphic details, are back in the spotlight.

He said it reminded him of the sex scandal that engulfed then-President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, when independent counsel Ken Starr reported the details of his affair with a White House intern, leading to Clinton’s impeachment by a GOP-controlled House.

Lankford said it’s “hard to tell” what impact Daniels’s testimony will have on voters in the fall, but he acknowledged “it’s painful and salacious.”

“It reminds me of the Clinton administration and all the conversations that were happening around that time period with Ken Starr and all the things that came out,” he said. “I hate for it being on TV, because there’s a younger generation watching TV and it becomes an issue. We saw that decades ago. We’re going to see that again. Just on a cultural values basis, it matters to our culture.”

A Republican senator who strongly supports Trump said that “values voters” — who make up a significant share of the GOP base — don’t necessarily believe what prosecutors are alleging about Trump’s relationship with Daniels or what the media is reporting about the trial, but the lawmaker acknowledged a significant share of voters don’t approve of Trump’s conduct, generally.

“I’m willing to bet if you did a poll, if you did a focus group of say evangelicals, certain Catholics, I bet a lot of them would be like, ‘Ehh, I don’t believe that stuff.’ But if you ask them, are you comfortable with some of his behavior? They’d say no,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss Trump’s public relations problems.

But the senator predicted that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals and conservative Catholics will still vote for Trump over Biden because “it’s a binary choice. It’s Biden or it’s Trump, and they vote like any other voter: strategically.”

Some of Trump’s past critics in the Senate GOP who have voiced anxiety about his ability to appeal to independent and swing voters are doing their best to ignore Daniels’s testimony and what impact it might have with voters.

“I think that’s all baked in,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), voicing the oft-repeated GOP defense that Trump’s alleged marital infidelity with Daniels and allegations that he paid her $130,000 to keep quiet are well known.

But other Republicans concede that Daniels’s testimony under oath in a courtroom has breathed some new life into the story.

“I think it was made more real by the testimony,” Tillis said.

Tillis said the decision by Trump’s legal defense to request another day to cross-examine Daniels reflects his lawyers probably saw her testimony as damaging.

“The only reason that I believe — I’m not an attorney — that the defense counsel would run the risk of doing that is they felt they had some ground to catch up,” he said. “It would just seem to me if they didn’t feel like it was harmful, either politically or to the case, why would they do the cross-examination?”

Hope Hicks, who served as White House communications director under Trump, testified at the trial last week that Trump himself acknowledged to her in 2018 that his former fixer Michael Cohen’s allegation that he paid off Daniels would have hurt him in the 2016 campaign.

“I think Mr. Trump’s opinion was it was better to be dealing with it now, and that it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election,” Hicks testified of Cohen’s statement to The New York Times in 2018 that he had made the payment with Trump’s knowledge.