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Some GOP Members Express Doubt About Trump's Ability To Win The Election

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Despite almost every poll showing Joe Biden ahead, President Trump insists he's more confident than ever about winning a second term. But that confidence doesn't extend to members of his own party, who are trying to figure out how to win their races when the top of their ticket could be in trouble. NPR national correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Alex Conant has worked for Republican presidential candidates, Senate candidates and the National Party. Right now, he and his fellow GOP strategists are not optimistic.

ALEX CONANT: I have not talked to a Republican operative since the presidential debate who thinks Trump is likely to win.

LIASSON: Republican officeholders like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are beginning to say the same thing.

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TED CRUZ: I think it could be a terrible election. I think we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress, that it could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions.

LIASSON: Some Republicans are breaking openly with Trump. Mitt Romney - no surprise there - says he voted early and not for Donald Trump. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse let loose last week on a conference call with constituents.

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BEN SASSE: The way he kisses dictators' butts, the way he treats women and mocks evangelicals behind closed doors - he's flirted with white supremacists.

LIASSON: That's easy for Sasse to say. He's cruising to reelection in ruby-red Nebraska. But Republican Senate incumbents in tough races can't do that. For them, says Alex Conant, breaking with the president is the political equivalent of a murder-suicide pact.

CONANT: You know, you need your base plus some independents to win an election these days. If you attack Trump or disown Trump and you're a Republican, you're going to lose your base.

LIASSON: So Republican candidates like Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona end up squirming like this in a debate on Arizona PBS.

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TED SIMONS: Are you proud of your support for President Trump?

MARTHA MCSALLY: I'm proud to be fighting for Arizona every single day...

SIMONS: Is that a yes or a no for President Trump?

MCSALLY: ...Putting legislation on President Trump's desk.

SIMONS: So you're proud of your support for President Trump?

MCSALLY: You look at the legislation we put on his desk. It's to cut Arizona taxes.

SIMONS: It sounds like she is proud of her support for President Trump.

MCSALLY: I'm proud to be fighting for Arizona.

CONANT: I think it's clear that Senate Republican candidates don't want to be talking about Donald Trump. They want to be talking about their own records, local issues, Joe Biden's faults, their opponents' faults because look; every time a Republican Senate candidate is talking about Donald Trump, he risks one of two things - hurting himself with the Republican base or hurting himself with independents. But there is no upside.

LIASSON: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, in a tight race in North Carolina, has gone even further. He made the kind of argument candidates make when they're convinced the top of their ticket is losing when he told Politico that, quote, "the best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate."

CONANT: I think you're going to see more Senate candidates arguing that we really need to make sure that we reelect Republican senators in case Joe Biden is elected president. And every voter can read the polls as well and knows that that's a likely scenario, so I expect you'll hear more of that sort of language the closer we get to the election.

LIASSON: But - and this is a very big but - few Republicans, and for that matter, few Democrats are ready just yet to write off Donald Trump. In 2016, lots of Republicans and Democrats thought he would lose, and he didn't. And there are signs that Trump still has advantages. In the past year, Republicans have registered more new voters than Democrats in the crucial swing states of Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. In Michigan and Wisconsin, there are lots of white, noncollege voters who didn't turn out in 2016 but could join Trump's base this year.

And there are other bright spots for Republicans, says political scientist Michael McDonald, who directs the U.S. Elections Project.

MICHAEL MCDONALD: We are seeing some signs that a normal democratic advantage in in-person early voting has turned to maybe a slight Republican advantage. New Mexico and Nevada, which have started their in-person early voting periods - both party registration states - you can see that Republicans are slightly leading the in-person early voting.

LIASSON: That may not be enough to offset the Democrats' lopsided advantage with mail-in ballots or the overall blue tilt of the electorate this year. But those are the kinds of things that keep Democrats up at night and Republicans from despairing altogether.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.