Unlike some American voters, senators have come to grips with the reality that the November presidential election is all but certain to be a rematch of the 2020 race.
Despite polls showing each likely nominee to be very unpopular, senators have turned fairly enthusiastic about their party’s front-runner, with little signs of regret about the choices ahead.
“Stop treating this like it’s fantasy football. You don’t make trades. We have our nominee,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a fervent supporter of President Biden. “He’s the leader of the free world. He’s the leader of our party and he’s objectively good at this job.”
“Donald Trump has a better story to tell because he can point to his record: low inflation, low interest rates, a secure border, a strong military,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who endorsed the former president soon after his governor, Doug Burgum (R), dropped out of the race last month.
Interviews with 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — found remarkably similar expectations, with each side viewing the other’s likely nominee as largely unelectable.
The biggest difference has been that Senate Democrats have long been a political bulwark for Biden, remaining publicly and privately supportive of him even as some polls suggest another Democrat would fare better against Trump. None seriously considered a primary challenge to him despite calls from some party elders.
That attitude spans the ideological spectrum and the vast generational range in their caucus.
“Donald Trump will be the nominee. Joe Biden will beat him like a drum, all right? Donald Trump has done nothing to expand the number of people who want to see him as president,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran to Biden’s left in the 2020 primary.
“I think the president is in a very strong position,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who at 36 is the youngest senator. In a critical swing state that Biden won by fewer than 12,000 votes, Ossoff noted that Georgia Republicans boast about their growing economy and manufacturing sector.
“We’re in the midst in Georgia of a manufacturing investment boom that flows directly from the manufacturing incentives and infrastructure policies that we passed,” Ossoff said, crediting the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.
Senate Republicans, however, were the most resistant bloc of GOP leaders toward another Trump nomination. They lost the majority in 2020, losing more ground in 2022, with candidates who echoed Trump’s political style.
By summer 2023, only 10 of the 49 GOP senators had endorsed another Trump bid. Soon after New Year’s Day, it became clear that he would steamroll through Iowa and win big in New Hampshire, which prompted an additional 10 Senate Republicans to formally endorse Trump this month. Fewer than 20 holdouts remain, but they have all acknowledged his almost certain victory for the nomination.
“We had several candidates who could beat [Biden]. I think the former president has a shot at beating him,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who has remained neutral since his first choice, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), dropped out of the race.
Even Trump skeptics like Rounds give him the edge over Biden — if he can run a disciplined campaign focused on his policy record.
But both sides of the Senate aisle expect Trump to struggle with his focus, expecting plenty of talk about false claims of a stolen 2020 election and retribution against Democrats and Republicans who have opposed him.
“I think people will be willing to go back to Trump, if they find in him somebody who’s going to invoke policies to make their life better. Now, if they look at him and find somebody who’s just mad and vengeful, I think he has a problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a consistent Trump supporter.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who also ran against Biden in the 2020 primaries, had a more blunt assessment: “Donald Trump is the most undisciplined candidate I’ve ever seen.”
Counting himself as “really bullish” on Biden, Booker suggested the same bloc of independents and moderate Republicans who broke in the first Trump-Biden matchup will do so again in November.
“In any swing state you pick,” he added, “it’s a redux of 2020.”
One blind spot for each side is the unwillingness to accept that voters approve of the economic performance of the opposing party’s president.
“It strikes me that Biden’s decided that his pathway to election is to run on abortion,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who endorsed Trump on Tuesday as he was winning the New Hampshire primary by 11 percentage points over former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.
“This is going to be a policy-personality race. They’re not going to talk much about policy,” Graham said, predicting a Democratic focus of trying “to scare everybody.”
Warren mocked Trump’s signature domestic policy achievement, the 2017 tax cuts, as “a giveaway to millionaires and giant corporations” that won’t sell, predicting a GOP effort to focus on Biden family controversies.
“What are they left with? Trying to have some kind of personal mudslinging contest with Joe Biden,” she said.
Yet Republicans want a policy-centric campaign, if Trump is willing, so they can tout a return to the late 2010s era of low inflation and big job growth — last month’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate remains a tick higher than the 3.5 percent of pre-pandemic February 2020 under Trump — and relative calm in the Middle East and Europe.
“Run on his record and run on the Biden record,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) suggested.
He pointed to the historical anomaly it will be to have the incumbent president running against the ex-president he defeated four years earlier — which happened once before, in 1892, when Grover Cleveland avenged his 1888 defeat to Benjamin Harrison and become the only president to serve two non-sequential terms.
“You have two records. That’s very unusual. You have two presidents with records,” said Sullivan, who remains neutral in the Republican primary.
And Democrats are equally bullish to talk about Biden’s record following a productive first two years in office that included wins on infrastructure, next-generation technologies and climate policy. The soaring inflation of late 2021 and 2022 has steadily receded while wages have kept rising.
Even Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who has advised previous GOP presidential nominees, remarked Friday that strong reports on business investment, coupled with dropping inflation data, pointed toward a good 2024 for the economy.
“All told, 2023 closed on a good note with solid growth and continued steady disinflation,” Holtz-Eakin wrote on his “Daily Dish” blog.
But voters gave Trump credit for a strong economy, something Biden currently lacks: 45 percent of voters were “satisfied” with the direction of the nation in January 2020, while just 22 percent say so now, according to Gallup.
Democrats contend that polling will catch up to where the economic data are, particularly with lower-income communities not focused on an election still 10 months away. Booker called Biden “the best president in my life for Black America” and said polls showing lackluster support from urban communities can be overcome once “you bring the receipts.”
“I’ve seen audiences change when I stand up and start going through the list,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) dismissed poor polling for both Biden and Trump as part of a new political era in which voters will regularly dislike national candidates given the steady dose of negative political news.
“The premise is that there would be two other candidates that people would be wildly enthusiastic about. I don’t know that that’s true,” Murphy said.
He acknowledged that many Democratic-leaning voters have tuned out Trump. “Some people have discounted the fact that he is going to be the eventual nominee, or others have just tried to shutter their eyes to him,” he said.
Cramer confessed that many GOP voters held the same opinion — of Biden.
“I think a lot of people, including me, have been thinking clearly they’re going to find a way to have it be somebody else,” he said, noting that changed for him once Biden won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide as a write-in candidate.
“They’re wedded to him,” Cramer added.
Democrats agree. They have grown exhausted by the talk of switching Biden off the ticket or that Trump’s legal trials will pull him off the ballot.
“None of that stuff is going to happen,” Schatz said. “We have a rematch, and we need to get comfortable with that and get serious about it.”