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 CornynHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research Tensions flare over GOP's Obama probes 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 SandersWarren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden Julián Castro to become senior advisor for Voto Latino It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 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 TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' 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 HoevenBipartisan senators seek funding for pork producers forced to euthanize livestock House Republicans threaten pushback on Saudi Arabia amid oil market slump Overnight Energy: Trump rollback of Obama mileage standards faces court challenges | Court strikes down EPA suspension of Obama greenhouse gas rule | Trump floats cutting domestic oil production 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 Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump threatens coronavirus funds for states easing voting Pelosi blasts Senate GOP subpoenas Senate Republicans issue first subpoena in Biden-Burisma probe MORE (D) in Michigan and possibly Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSave wildlife, save ourselves Warren, Levin introduce legislation for federal contact tracing program Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife in T coronavirus bill 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 KushnerTrump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators Press: King Donald's goal - no checks, no balances Trump faces criticism over lack of national plan on coronavirus 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 GardnerPass the Primary Care Enhancement Act The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden seeks to tamp down controversy over remarks about black support OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues MORE (R-Colo.) and Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyWhere Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races Why Trump, GOP are running into trouble in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.). Meanwhile, prominent moderate Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December Republicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 ClintonTrump escalates fight against mail-in voting Sunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase The Electoral College is not democratic — nor should it be 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 IsaksonLoeffler says she won't drop out of Georgia Senate race after stock trade controversy Kelly Loeffler's husband donates million to pro-Trump group Poll shows tight races for president, Senate in Georgia MORE (R-Ga.) from “likely” Republican to “lean” Republican amid an internecine battle between newly appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden seeks to tamp down controversy over remarks about black support Loeffler says she won't drop out of Georgia Senate race after stock trade controversy The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden campaigns rein in spending during pandemic MORE (R-Ga.) and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler says she won't drop out of Georgia Senate race after stock trade controversy Kelly Loeffler's husband donates million to pro-Trump group Poll: Trump and Biden running neck and neck in Georgia 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 RobertsThe age of handshakes may be over — so how to seal the deal now? Congress headed toward unemployment showdown Family Research Council endorses Roger Marshall in Kansas Senate primary MORE (R) from “likely” to “lean” Republican after Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoKim Jong Un seeks to continue bolstering North Korea's nuclear capabilities, state media says China reports no new COVID-19 cases for first time since outbreak Trump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy 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 BidenBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Warren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden COVID-19 makes Trump's work with black Americans that much harder 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 McConnellMemorial Day weekend deals latest economic blow to travel industry Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' Senate Democrats call on Trump administration to let Planned Parenthood centers keep PPP loans States, companies set up their own COVID-19 legal shields MORE (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference after the weekly Democratic lunch meeting. “There is no plan.”