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Name Trump or not? Senate responses to Soleimani killing highlight 2020 tightrope

Some facing toughest reelection battles do not mention president

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is one of the most vulnerable senators running for reelection. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Mixed responses to the U.S. military drone strike that killed a top Iranian leader highlighted the tightrope that politically vulnerable senators walk this year when it comes to praising or criticizing President Donald Trump.

Congressional reaction fell largely along party lines to Trump’s order that led to the death in Iraq Thursday of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. While there was universal condemnation of Soleimani’s role in terrorist strikes and support for militants who battled Americans, Republicans cheered Trump’s use of force while Democrats questioned whether he had congressional authorization and a strategy to deal with Iranian retaliation.

But three Republicans running in states where Trump is not overwhelmingly popular did not mention the president by name in their statements. Nor did a Democrat in a top battleground state.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee running for reelection in a state that Trump lost in 2016, commended “the administration for taking this decisive action.” But Gardner went on to urge the administration “to be prepared for possible retaliation … and to consult closely with Congress on any next steps should the situation escalate.”

Hillary Clinton won Colorado by 5 percentage points in 2016 and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Colorado Senate race a Toss-Up

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the other GOP senator running in a state Clinton won, also did not mention Trump directly. Inside Elections rates her reelection race Tilt Republican.

Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, did note that she was briefed Friday by Vice President Mike Pence. She also called on the administration to work with Congress. 

"This action does risk further military escalation, and given those risks, Congress must not be side-lined," Collins said. "The Administration must quickly brief Congress on all available intelligence and its strategy to protect American citizens and service members against Iran."

Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally, an Air Force veteran and a member of the Armed Services Committee, also did not mention Trump by name. Trump carried Arizona by 3 points in 2016, but McSally lost her bid for the Senate in 2018. She was appointed after the election to fill the vacancy caused by Sen. John McCain’s death, and now is running for the remaining two years of that term. Inside Elections rates that race a Toss-Up.

“Qassem Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers during the Iraq War and hostile activities throughout the Middle East,” McSally said. “His pursuit of state-sponsored terror has finally come to an end.”

On the Democratic side, one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents declined to join colleagues in his party who criticized Trump’s actions as reckless.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, one of two Democrats running for reelection in a state Trump carried in 2016, said in a Thursday night tweet, “Tonight’s strike took a notorious terrorist off the battlefield. What comes next is critical for the region and the world.”

Peters, a veteran of the U.S. Navy Reserve and the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, kept his comments forward-looking.

“I am focused on ensuring that there is a strategy to protect our citizens, servicemembers, and diplomats, and that advances our national security,” said Peters, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Peters is likely facing 2018 Senate nominee John James, an African-American Army veteran who came closer than expected to defeating Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Democratic.

Closer to the party line

The response from the country’s most vulnerable Democratic senator this year was somewhat critical of the president’s move. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones , who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that “the world is most certainly a better place” without Soleimani.

“However, tensions will surely escalate in an already tense relationship with Iran and briefing Congress before any further action is essential,” Jones said.

Another potentially vulnerable Democrat’s comments were similar to those of others in her party. New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who serves on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Soleimani’s death “represents some justice for those Americans lost.” She also called the action “a significant escalation.”

“I hope that the White House has a plan in place and has prepared for potential responses from Iran,” Shaheen said. Inside Elections rates the New Hampshire Senate race Likely Democratic.

Three vulnerable GOP senators who serve on the Armed Services Committee — Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia — made statements that were similar to those of colleagues from more solidly Republican states.

Their statements underscored how even Republicans in competitive races who criticize the president risk alienating Trump’s base of voters, who they need to turn out in November.

Tillis, whose race Inside Elections rates as a Toss-Up, praised Trump, telling Fox News, “I appreciate President Trump’s resolve and I think it was an appropriate action.”

Ernst, a veteran of the Army Reserve and Iowa National Guard who served in Iraq, noted in her statement that Soleimani’s killing came at Trump’s direction.

“I applaud the work of U.S. military personnel in carrying out this mission. America, and our world, is safer because of Soleimani’s death,” Ernst said.

Perdue, one of Trump’s most strident congressional allies, tweeted Thursday night, “@realDonaldTrump has been clear — when American lives are threatened, he will not hesitate to act with strength.”

Inside Elections rates the Iowa Senate race as Lean Republican and the Georgia Senate race as Likely Republican.

Simone Pathé contributed to this report.

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