A tough re-election climate tests the chumminess in Senate

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., listen to comments during maneuvering on the confirmation vote for President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who has faced considerable opposition before the panel, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) –The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In Trump’s Washington, traditions are frail and civility a novelty. But one custom that is hanging on — tattered and tenuously — is an unwritten rule: Don’t work too hard to inflict political harm on your Senate colleagues.

This election season is testing lawmakers’ commitment to the fading courtesy. As many Democrats face tough re-election races in states won by President Donald Trump, their Republican colleagues face a choice about how fervently to try to defeat their fellow senators.

The question has bubbled up recently as GOP senators have indicated their intention to pull their punches against Democratic incumbents from their home states. In hot Senate races in Indiana and Florida, Republican senators have suggested they might not go to the mat for the Republican candidates. Sen. Bob Corker raised eyebrows Sunday with a twist on the rule — issuing a startlingly tepid endorsement of Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the House lawmaker running against Democrat Phil Bredesen for Corker’s seat in Tennessee.

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“I’m not going to campaign against him, but I’m supporting our nominee,” Corker said on CNN.

There was a time such a statement might not have made news. Old-timers say there used to be a hard and fast rule not to meddle in other Senate races lest you sour relationships in the clubby Senate, then, as now, loaded with politicians blessed by long memories and thin skins.

“The feeling was that the Senate was just too small an institution for us to be campaigning against one another,” said Susan Collins, R-Maine, of the practice when she first joined the Senate two decades ago. “Over the years, that clearly has changed dramatically.”

Trump undoubtedly has played a role, with his unsparing attacks on Twitter and elsewhere on Democrats — and GOP critics such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Corker. But there are other pressures at play. While working aggressively against a colleague could make it difficult to achieve gains for your state, as races get tight — and control of the Senate hangs in the balance — senators are pushed to do all they can to help.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among those likely to feel the heat. Rubio has said he’ll campaign for Republican Rick Scott, the Florida governor taking on Sen. Bill Nelson. But he won’t attack Nelson, he says.

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“I work with him every day. Why would I attack him?” said Rubio. “I consider him someone I work well with, but I want Republicans to be in the majority.”

Rubio’s plans trace what is viewed as a new rule: Campaign for your party’s nominee, but do not criticize your colleague in the other party.

“I won’t ever say anything negative about Joe, publicly or for that matter privately,” said Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., whose Democratic colleague, Joe Donnelly, is a top GOP target.

One consideration is that there’s usually a pretty good chance that your colleague is going to win anyway. Going on the attack can provoke hard feelings that may linger.

“There’s usually kind of an understanding that there’s a limit to what you do because at the end of the day you may be back in business together,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “It was not that long ago that it was just considered unacceptable to campaign against your colleague.”

It’s also good politics. Senators often try to appear above Washington partisan battles — at least with the voters back home. And you also compete to win over the same voters, especially independents. Attacking a colleague is a proven way to turn them off.

“Where you have a more competitive situation you have more incentive to get along,” said Professor James Thurber of American University.

In the past, some Senate pairings even had non-aggression pacts. Former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., nearly lost to then-GOP Rep. John Ensign in 1998. But after Ensign came to the Senate two years later, he and Reid forged a non-aggression pact that worked to their mutual political advantage.

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When Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was running his unsuccessful re-election race in 2008, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, his best friend, not only endorsed him but appeared at a Stevens’ fundraiser. Similarly, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., donated $5,000 to Collins when she faced a tough 2008 race — even as Democratic colleagues like Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey traveled to Maine to try to defeat her.

“It was very difficult for me to work with them when I won,” said Collins, who added that Lautenberg apologized afterward.

Heads swiveled in 2004 when Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threw aside tradition and traveled to South Dakota to campaign against Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Both Collins and Durbin raised the episode as a turning point.

“That to me was the end of an era and it’s never been the same since,” Durbin said.

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