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GOP, Democrats hash out 2020 strategy at dueling retreats

GOP, Democrats hash out 2020 strategy at dueling retreats
© Bonnie Cash

Senate Republicans and Democrats held their annual retreats Wednesday to prepare for the eight-month march to Election Day, when voters will decide which party controls the upper chamber.

The future Senate majority may depend on two wild cards: who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and whether the coronavirus significantly slows the economy.

“A lot of this is going to depend on whether we have the wind at our back or at our face,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDallas Morning News poll shows Biden leading Trump in Texas Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Texas) after meeting with colleagues at the retreat at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters.

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If Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden All fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown The Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds MORE (I-Vt.) wins the Democratic nomination, it would give Republicans an opening to attack his policies, which are largely opposed among Senate Democrats, such as “Medicare for All,” free college and canceling student debt.

“That will have a dramatic impact because they’ll be at the top of the ticket. Democrats are divided. There’s no telling who their nominee is going to be right now but if it’s Sanders, then I think you’re going to see a lack of enthusiasm by some of the more moderate part of the Democratic Party,” Cornyn said.

If the coronavirus hits the United States hard, it could stall the roaring economy that Republicans see as their greatest asset heading into the election.

Another X-factor is President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, a polarizing figure who confounded pollsters in the 2016 election and often defies conventional wisdom without suffering repercussions that would end the careers of other politicians.

“If the economy goes bad, Trump is toast,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

GOP senators discussed the potential hit on the economy at their retreat Wednesday.

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“The real impact is because China is such a big part of the global economy. They typically have a 6 percent growth rate, now you’re looking at something significantly less. That not only affects China but affects us,” said Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Bottom line Bipartisan senators seek funding for pork producers forced to euthanize livestock MORE (R-N.D.) after the retreat.

Cornyn said, “It’s the fear of the unknown.”

At this point, Republicans, who control 53 seats, are the favorites to retain their majority since they are expected to defeat Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Democrats will have to pick up seats in Republican-leaning states such as Iowa, Georgia, Kansas or North Carolina to control the Senate in 2021.

“I guess the favorite would be Republicans retaining majority,” said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies the Senate.

“I think there is a great deal of uncertainty this year,” he added. “The usual political fundamentals, the popularity of the president and the state of the economy, appear to be pointing in opposite directions. So that makes it a little tricky.”

Republicans also think they have a chance to knock off Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Jaime Harrison raises million in two weeks for South Carolina Senate bid BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time MORE (D) in Michigan and possibly Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithTina Smith and Jason Lewis tied in Minnesota Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE (D) in Minnesota. While Trump won Michigan in 2016 and narrowly lost Minnesota, Peters and Smith are both favored to win reelection.

“I think we see, I’d say with some confidence, an opportunity to pick up Alabama and maybe someplace like Michigan or maybe Minnesota,” Cornyn said.

Trump’s job approval rating as tracked by Gallup polling hit a personal best of 49 percent during the Senate impeachment trial. Gallup also found that Americans’ confidence in the economy in late January was the highest since 2000.

Trump’s campaign manager Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE and the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerLincoln Project attorney on billboards lawsuit threat: 'Please peddle your scare tactics elsewhere' Biden pushes back on Trump: 'Crass' to go after political rival's children Lawyers for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner threaten to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards MORE briefed senators Wednesday on plans to coordinate the presidential and Senate campaigns.

Hoeven said, “It was a really strong presentation.”

The good news for Democrats is that they appear to have a good shot at knocking off incumbent Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans MORE (R-Colo.) and Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego Senate is leaning to the Democrats, big time, with a wave MORE (R-Ariz.). Meanwhile, prominent moderate Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump autographs pumpkin at Maine campaign event: 'It'll be on eBay tonight' Trump makes rare campaign stops in New England in closing stretch MORE (R-Maine) is facing the toughest reelection race of her Senate career.

Gardner and Collins are running in states that voted for Demcoratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE in 2016, while McSally faces one of the Democrats’ strongest recruits, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who entered the year with $13.6 million in his campaign account, while McSally had $7.7 million.

All three of those GOP incumbents — Gardner, Collins and McSally — raised less money than their Democratic opponents in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report projected in December that Democrats were in position to win the majority after expanding the map of battleground races to include Iowa, Georgia and Kansas.

In late January, the Cook report shifted the Georgia seat formerly held by Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonQAnon-promoter Marjorie Taylor Greene endorses Kelly Loeffler in Georgia Senate bid Biden up by 7 points in Georgia: survey Loeffler tweets edited video showing Trump taking down coronavirus in wrestling match MORE (R-Ga.) from “likely” Republican to “lean” Republican amid an internecine battle between newly appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerSchumer warns of COVID-19 danger posed by Pence on Senate floor Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time MORE (R-Ga.) and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsSunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time Republicans scramble to shore up support in Ga. as Democrats gain MORE (R-Ga.), who is gunning for her job.

The Cook Political Report last month also shifted the Kansas seat held by retiring Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP's campaign arm releases first ad targeting Bollier in Kansas The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden hit campaign trail in Florida National Republicans will spend to defend Kansas Senate seat MORE (R) from “likely” to “lean” Republican after Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoArmenia and Azerbaijan say they will implement ceasefire agreement Monday Entire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' MORE made clear he’s not interested in running, making former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach the front-runner for the GOP nomination. That was a setback for Republicans who question Kobach’s electability. He lost the Kansas governor’s race by 5 points in 2018.

Even so, Republicans say they are feeling very good about their chances.

Democrats privately admit they are growing nervous about the presidential primary fight dragging into the late spring or even lasting until the July convention, which would give Trump a major head start in the general election.

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“There’s a substantial element of people worried about where we’re going,” said a Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to talk about discussions with colleagues. 

Democratic senators are surprised by the disappointing performance of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, who now needs to win in South Carolina Saturday to remain a viable contender against Sanders, the clear front-runner.

That nervousness may be reflected in the Democrats’ decision to hold a longer retreat than the Republicans. The Democratic internal meetings were scheduled to last through Thursday morning while the Republicans wrapped up their session early Wednesday afternoon. Democrats also kept their precise retreat location Wednesday in Baltimore a closely guarded secret and did not allow any press access.

If Sanders wins the nomination, it would play into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa Democratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask MORE’s (R-Ky.) stated goal of making the 2020 election “a referendum on socialism.”

“Whether it’s Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or somebody else, the nominee for president on the Democratic side is going to be on a path to try to turn America into a socialist country. We’re not going to let that happen,” McConnell said in a Fox News interview that Senate Republicans tweeted out Wednesday.

However, economists are raising major concerns about how the coronavirus will affect the economy.

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Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, on Wednesday said the rapid spread of the virus has raised the chances of a recession in the first half of 2020 from 20 percent to 40 percent.

“The Chinese economy is shutting down, the European economy is clearly going to struggle now with what’s going on in Italy,” he said in a CNN interview, referring to an outbreak in Italy. “Businesses globally, they can’t catch a break.”

Senate Democrats this week made Trump’s response to the possible pandemic the centerpiece of their messaging.

“It is clear this administration is in total disarray when it comes to the crisis of the coronavirus,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGraham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Lewandowski: Trump 'wants to see every Republican reelected regardless of ... if they break with the president' Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference after the weekly Democratic lunch meeting. “There is no plan.”