In 2016, a number of Senate Republicans made the rare political decision to oppose their own party’s nominee, then-candidate Donald Trump. They were known as “Never Trumpers.” Now, with 2020 already in full swing, IJR asked those Republicans if they plan to support the president this time around.
In exclusive interviews, a pair of the “Never Trump” Republican senators flipped on their opposition to the president from 2016, telling IJR that they will back Trump in 2020. However, both endorsements appeared to be more out of necessity or convenience rather than enthusiastic advocacy.
“How’d you know that?” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said jokingly when IJR mentioned to him that he rescinded his support for Trump’s 2016 campaign following the release of the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape showing the president making lewd comments about kissing and groping women without consent.
However, just over two years later, Portman now says he plans to back the president in 2020.
“I intended to support the Republican incumbent,” he told IJR. And like other Republicans, Portman said he’s basically supporting Trump because he’s already the president.
“What changed?” Portman replied when asked why he’s changed his mind. “Well, he’s the incumbent. I mean, he’s in office, I work with him every day.
“I disagree with him publicly and privately when appropriate. But I also get a lot done, and I get that done with him. So we work with the White House, and I think that’s important for Ohio,” Portman added.
Portman has been critical of the president, including pushing back on Trump when he called Democrats “treasonous” for not applauding enough during last year’s State of the Union address.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), another Republican senator who vocally opposed Trump in 2016, told IJR that he’s endorsing the president now because it’s the “right thing to do for Colorado.”
“Look, there are things here — look, I’ve made it very clear that where I agree with the president, we will agree or where I disagree, we will disagree,” Gardner told IJR. “But I’m going to fight like hell for Colorado, and we’ve done some good things for Colorado.
“I know what Kamala Harris and I know what Bernie Sanders will do to Colorado, and that’s why I’ll be supporting the president,” Gardner added.
“Why, is someone running against him?”
Gardner called for Trump to step aside in 2016 and said the only way Republicans would defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton “is with a new nominee that reflects the values of our country and our party.”
Both Portman and Gardner find themselves in complicated states politically. Portman isn’t up for re-election until 2022, but Ohio, which Trump won in 2016, has gradually soured on the president over the course of the administration’s first few years.
According to Morning Consult polling, the Buckeye State has dropped from a plus-14 net approval for Trump at the start of his presidency to a net approval of minus-3 in its latest update.
Unlike Portman, Gardner is up for re-election in 2020 and in a state (Colorado) that not only voted for Clinton in 2016 but has a significantly lower net approval of Trump, falling from plus-1 at the beginning of his presidency to minus-16 as of December 2018.
But Gardner isn’t the only “Never Trump” Republican senator up for re-election in 2020. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who provided the dramatic 50th vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in late 2018, said she’s not ready to say whether or not she will support Trump in 2020.
“Look, I’m not worried about that right now. I’m going to concentrate on 2020 when we get to 2020,” Collins told IJR earlier in January regarding if she’ll flip and back the president in the upcoming election.
And on Tuesday, Collins told “PBS NewsHour’s” Judy Woodruff that she’s “not prepared” to say whether or not Trump has her support.
During his first week in Washington, freshman Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who’s been a persistent critic of the president dating back to the 2016 campaign, also said he’s not sure he can support Trump in 2020.
“I haven’t decided who I’m going to endorse in 2020. I’m going to wait and see what the alternatives are,” Romney said in an interview.
Other “Never Trump” Republicans refused to weigh in on whether or not they would support their own party’s president in the upcoming election. Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) both declined to comment when asked where their support will land in 2020.
It’s important to point out just how abnormal it is for so many Republicans to either refuse to comment or cast doubt on whether or not they will support the leader of their own party in the upcoming presidential election.
To be fair, most Republicans will support the president in the general election, even if some seem to be doing so by default.
“Yes. Why, is someone running against him?” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) replied when asked if he plans to back Trump, his former 2016 rival. “It’s my intention, of course, to support the nominee. And he’ll be the nominee.”