WASHINGTON — For nearly four years, congressional Republicans have ducked and dodged an unending cascade of offensive statements and norm-shattering behavior from President Trump, ignoring his caustic and scattershot Twitter feed and penchant for flouting party orthodoxy, and standing quietly by as he abandoned military allies, attacked American institutions and stirred up racist and nativist fears.
But now, facing grim polling numbers and a flood of Democratic money and enthusiasm that has imperiled their majority in the Senate, Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to publicly distance themselves from the president. The shift, less than three weeks before the election, indicates that many Republicans have concluded that Mr. Trump is heading for a loss in November. And they are grasping to save themselves and rushing to re-establish their reputations for a coming struggle for their party’s identity.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska unleashed on Mr. Trump in a telephone town hall event with constituents on Wednesday, eviscerating the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and accusing him of “flirting” with dictators and white supremacists and alienating voters so broadly that he might cause a “Republican blood bath” in the Senate. He was echoing a phrase from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who warned of a “Republican blood bath of Watergate proportions.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the president’s most vocal allies, predicted the president could very well lose the White House.
Even the normally taciturn Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has been more outspoken than usual in recent days about his differences with the president, rejecting his calls to “go big” on a stimulus bill. That was a reflection of the fact that Senate Republicans — who have rarely broken with the president on any major legislative initiative in four years — are unwilling to vote for the kind of multitrillion-dollar federal aid plan that Mr. Trump has suddenly decided would be in his interest to embrace.
“Voters are set to drive the ultimate wedge between Senate Republicans and Trump,” said Alex Conant, a former aide to Senator Marco Rubio and a former White House spokesman. “It’s a lot easier to get along when you’re winning elections and gaining power. But when you’re on the precipice of what could be a historic loss, there is less eagerness to just get along.”
Republicans could very well hang onto both the White House and the Senate, and Mr. Trump still has a firm grip on the party base, which may be why even some of those known for being most critical of him, like Mr. Sasse and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, declined to be interviewed about their concerns.
But their recent behaviors have offered an answer to the long-pondered question of if there would ever be a point when Republicans might repudiate a president who so frequently said and did things that undermined their principles and message. The answer appears to be the moment they feared he would threaten their political survival.
Keep up with Election 2020
If some Senate Republicans have written off Mr. Trump’s chances of victory, the feeling may be mutual. On Friday, the president issued his latest Twitter attack on Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most endangered Republican incumbents, apparently unconcerned that he might be further imperiling her chances, along with the party’s hopes of holding onto the Senate.
In a statement on Friday, Mr. Romney assailed the president for being unwilling to condemn QAnon, the viral pro-Trump conspiracy movement that the F.B.I. has labeled a domestic terrorism threat, saying the president was “eagerly trading” principles “for the hope of electoral victories.” It was his second scathing statement this week criticizing Mr. Trump, although Mr. Romney coupled both screeds with critques of Democrats, saying the two parties shared blame.
Yet Mr. Romney and other Republicans who have spoken up to offer dire predictions or expressions of concern about Mr. Trump are all sticking with the president on what is likely his final major act before the election: the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of conservatives, to the Supreme Court.
The dichotomy reflects the tacit deal congressional Republicans have accepted over the course of Mr. Trump’s presidency, in which they have tolerated his incendiary behavior and statements knowing that he would further many of their priorities, including installing a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court.
Still, the grim political environment has set off a scramble, especially among Republicans with political aspirations stretching beyond Mr. Trump’s presidency, to be on the front lines of any party reset.
“As it becomes evident that he is a mere political mortal like everyone else, you’re really starting to see the jockeying taking place for what the future of the Republican Party is,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who did not support Mr. Trump in 2016. “What we heard from Senator Sasse yesterday was the beginning of that process.”
In an interview, Mr. Curbelo said that his former colleagues have known for months that Mr. Trump would one day become “subject to the laws of political gravity” — and that the party would face the consequences.
“Most congressional Republicans have known that this is unsustainable long term, and they’ve just been — some people may call it pragmatic, some may call it opportunistic — keeping their heads down and doing what they have to do while they waited for this time to come,” he said.
It is unclear whether Republicans will seek to redefine their party should the president lose, given that Mr. Trump’s tenure has shown the appeal of his inflammatory brand of politics to the crucial conservative base.
“He still has enormous, enormous influence — and will for a very long time — over primary voters, and that is what members care about,” said Brendan Buck, a former counselor to the last two Republican House speakers.
What Mr. Sasse and Mr. Cruz may be aiming for, he added, is a last-ditch bid to preserve Republican control of the Senate.
“If you’re able to say it out loud, there is an effective message that a Republican Senate can be a check on a Democratic-run Washington,” Mr. Buck said. “It’s just hard to say that out loud because you have to concede the president is done.”
On the campaign trail, Republicans are privately livid with the president for dragging down their Senate candidates, sending his struggles rippling across states that are traditional Republican strongholds.
“His weakness in dealing with coronavirus has put a lot more seats in play than we ever could have imagined a year ago,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and consultant. “We always knew that there were going to be a number of close Senate races, and we were probably swimming against the tide in places like Arizona, Colorado and Maine. But when you see states that are effectively tied, like Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina, that tells you something has happened in the broader environment.”
In 2016, when Mr. Trump, then a candidate, looked increasingly likely to capture the party’s nomination, Mr. McConnell assured his members that if he threatened to harm them in the general election, they would “drop him like a hot rock.”
That did not happen then and it is unlikely to now, with Republicans up for re-election readily aware that Democratic voters are unlikely to reward such a rebuke, especially so close to Election Day. But there have been other, more subtle moves.
Despite repeated public entreaties from Mr. Trump for Republicans to embrace a larger pandemic stimulus package, Mr. McConnell has all but refused, saying senators in his party would never support a package of that magnitude. Senate Republicans revolted last weekend on a conference call with Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, warning that a big-spending deal would amount to a “betrayal” of the party’s base and tarnish their credentials as fiscal hawks.
A more personal rebuke came from Mr. McConnell last week when the Kentuckian, who is up for re-election, told reporters that he had avoided visiting the White House since late summer because of its handling of the coronavirus.
“My impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate,” Mr. McConnell said.