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Why so few Republican senators in competitive races spoke at the RNC

7 Senate Republicans are in the fight of their political lives. Only one spoke at the RNC.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks during a press conference following the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on June 30, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Republican senators are defending a lot of turf in the 2020 elections. You’d never know it from watching this year’s Republican National Convention.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) was the lone Republican incumbent in a toss-up Senate race to address the GOP convention with a primetime speech. Six other senators who are in the fight of their political lives this year weren’t scheduled to speak: Cory Gardner (CO), Martha McSally (AZ), Steve Daines (MT), Thom Tillis (NC), and David Perdue (GA). And rather than hearing from Maine Sen. Susan Collins at the convention, viewers got a lobsterman from that state, Jason Joyce.

During an election year that’s seen Republican primaries largely be about loyalty to President Donald Trump, incumbent senators who spoke at the RNC largely were those who embody Trump’s vision. Viewers heard from conservative Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn on Wednesday, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is scheduled to speak Thursday. A standout speaker was Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black member of the Senate GOP and lead author of its criminal justice reform bill. Michigan Republican John James, a frequent Fox News contributor who is challenging Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, also addressed the convention with a prerecorded speech on Monday night.

The lack of senators who are up in swing states on the RNC stage was in part due to a hastily planned virtual convention, sources told Vox.

“It hasn’t been the most seamless process in the world,” a Republican operative told Vox. “Everything seems to have come together recently.”

But it also has to do with who these vulnerable senators are trying to appeal to. Party conventions typically serve as a way to help excite the base, but many of these incumbents also need the support of swing and independent voters in order to keep their seats. Some are running in states where Trump’s approval rating is underwater. Because of this, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is giving senators leeway to strike a more independent posture and distance themselves from Trump when they deem it necessary.

“I don’t think Senate Republican candidates are trying to distance themselves from Trump as a whole, they are more picking specific issues to show their independence from the president,” Tim Cameron, a Republican strategist and former chief digital strategist at the NRSC, told Vox. “There’s just more to lose from wholesale abandoning the president.”

Looking at it through this lens, the absence of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents may not be so surprising. It’s also worth noting that few Democratic Senate challengers spoke at last week’s Democratic National Convention. However, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who is easily Democrats’ most endangered incumbent, gave a speech addressing his involvement in the fight for civil rights in that state.

“Participation by both incumbents and challenger Senate candidates in key battleground states is the exception rather than the rule,” Cameron said.

The lack of GOP senators at the Republican convention, briefly explained

Party conventions are largely about rallying around the candidate for president and the party’s ideas for the next four years.

The RNC has been all about making the case for four more years of Trump, a deeply controversial president.

Trump has made an indelible mark on the GOP, remaking the party in his own image. The incumbent president’s name was emblazoned across the speaker’s lectern, and the convention featured Trump performing a presidential pardon and a naturalization ceremony at the White House. The Republican Party forwent its issues platform this year, instead endorsing the set of ideas coming from the White House.

Speaking with Politico reporters Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman on Wednesday morning, NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin said, “I don’t think we should read too much into” the absence of swing state senators.

“Every single senator, to my knowledge, is participating on some level or another; it’s just been a different type of convention,” McLaughlin told Politico. “I think all of our folks are committed to working on a unified ticket — there’s no question about that. We’ve worked with the Trump campaign and vice versa.”

On Wednesday night, Ernst gave her remarks not in Washington, DC, but via a prerecorded speech in her native state of Iowa. Ernst spent plenty of time praising Trump, but her speech was tailored to her state, appealing to a constituency made up largely of farmers (Trump won Iowa by about 9 points in 2016).

To decide whether it makes sense for candidates to appear at the national convention, campaigns need to consider factors like how Trump is performing in that candidate’s home state, according to Cameron.

“There are some places where I think it makes more sense than others,” Cameron said. “Sen. Ernst is in a state where Trump is outperforming her by 3 to 5 points in [recent] polls.”

Even so, Trump’s approval rating has slipped in the state; he has a net approval rating of -5, according to Morning Consult. It’s a dramatic 14-point dip in the president’s approval ratings since he took office.

Trump’s net approval is at a similar spot in Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins is embroiled in one of her toughest fights for reelection. Competing against Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, Collins hasn’t endorsed Trump for president and hasn’t commented on whether she plans to vote for him in the fall — despite backing Republican candidates for president in previous election cycles.

“Donald Trump is really unpopular in the southern part of the state, and for a lot of those voters — particularly the younger voters — they don’t put a lot of weight in her seniority, her weight in appropriations, her history as a moderate,” said Colby College political science professor and pollster Dan Shea. “They perceive her as part of the Trump/McConnell team. That’s why she’s in a tough race.”

Collins is trying to strike her own path to reelection without Trump’s involvement, so it’s not that surprising to see her without a primetime slot at the RNC.

Still, it’s unclear how many GOP senators were even asked to speak at this year’s convention. A spokesperson for the Trump campaign declined to comment when Vox asked which senators were invited.

There’s a real battle for the Senate majority this year

Even though the presidential contest between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is at the forefront of people’s minds this fall, there’s an equally important battle for control of the Senate playing out all over the country.

A few months ago, Democrats were expected to have only a narrow path to retaking the barest of majorities. Heading into the final stretch, their battleground map has expanded dramatically. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently rates six Republican-held seats as “toss-ups” — Colorado, Maine, Montana, Iowa, Georgia, and North Carolina. Cook rates another Republican-held state, Arizona, as “Lean Democrat.”

That expansion has been driven by a number of factors, including the coronavirus crisis and a sluggish economy. More than 20 million Americans are still receiving some form of unemployment assistance from the government, according to a CNN analysis.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse recently described the pandemic as having led to “an extraordinary flip of the mood in the country in a short amount of time.” And polling in June and July found 75 percent to 80 percent of voters said they thought the country was headed in the wrong direction.

“That portends change,” Newhouse told Vox. “Whether [voters] hold Trump or Republicans in the House or Senate accountable or not, they’re still going to vote for change.”

Trump has always been a controversial president; the Republican base is loyal to him, but the 2018 midterms and polling into 2020 shows that independent and swing voters could defect to the Democrats. And as much as Republicans have been attempting to paint the Democratic Party as a radical band of socialists, Biden is a moderate presidential candidate, and many of the Democrats running for Senate are staunch moderates as well.

Democrats are hoping that formula can help them flip the Senate and win back the White House, but it’s going to be tough. Both Democrats and Republicans are fundraising millions and pouring that money into attack advertising that’s deluging the airwaves. Republicans are especially hoping to define lesser-known Democratic candidates in a negative way before they can define themselves.

Democrats need to win back at least three seats to reclaim the majority, but they are also defending Sen. Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama, a state where Trump has a 28-point net approval rating. If Jones loses, that means Democrats need to win four seats and the White House (where their party’s vice president could vote to break ties in the Senate), or net five seats without the White House advantage. Many of these races are extremely competitive, but Democrats have more paths to a majority than they did last summer.

Republican strategists were in full panic mode a few months ago. Now, they’re sounding a little more optimistic their candidates can hang on, citing a slight uptick in Trump’s battleground state polling.

“I think things have improved significantly over the last month for Republicans,” Cameron said.

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