GOP senators worry Trump, COVID-19 could cost them their majority

Senate Republicans looking at polls showing GOP incumbents losing ground are concerned that President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE's handling of the pandemic has put their majority in danger.

The two biggest criticisms of Trump that GOP lawmakers express privately are that his administration took too long to deploy coronavirus tests and that the president’s statements and demeanor have been too cavalier or flippant.

The biggest headwind Republicans face this fall is the faltering national economy, which now has a 14.7 percent unemployment rate, according to a Friday report by the Labor Department.

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While Republican senators acknowledge that Trump’s popular support is tough to poll, some are concerned about surveys showing his approval rating below that of all 50 governors and other world leaders.

Compounding their anxiety are recent polls showing Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate committee advances bipartisan energy infrastructure bill  Hillicon Valley: Lina Khan faces major FTC test | Amazon calls for her recusal | Warren taps commodities watchdog to probe Google Senators propose bill to help private sector defend against hackers MORE (R-Mont.), a once-safe incumbent, now trailing his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve BullockSteve Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE, and Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund MORE (R-Iowa), who was also seen as cruising to reelection, in a dead heat with Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

Incumbent GOP Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE (Colo.) and Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (Ariz.) are well behind in the polls, while Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-N.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Trump pressures McConnell, GOP to ditch bipartisan talks until they have majority Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Maine) are in toss-up races.

Democrats need to net three seats and the White House to win the Senate majority.

“There’s concern,” said one Republican lawmaker describing apprehension over Trump’s job performance over the past two months.

The lawmaker acknowledged that Trump is “hard to poll” and that he has defied pollsters' predictions he would lose to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA path to climate, economic and environmental justice is finally on the horizon Polling misfired in 2020 — and that's a lesson for journalists and pundits Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe MORE in 2016. But the Republican also pointed to recent data that shows “every governor and every world leader is way up the polls but Trump isn’t.”

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A recent survey of 22,000 voters in all 50 states by Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers universities found voters in every state are more likely to approve of their governor’s job performance than Trump’s or Congress’s.

That could be a problem for incumbents such as Daines and Gardner, who are running against a governor and former governor, respectively.

A Montana State University poll released Tuesday showed Bullock leading Daines by 7 points, while a Keating-Onsight-Melanson poll showed former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Colorado lawmaker warns of fire season becoming year-round The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden helps negotiate bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D) ahead of Gardner by nearly 20 points.

A new Hart Research Associates poll shows that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE has a 9-point lead over Trump in six states where Republican senators face tough reelection fights.

The poll found Democratic challengers leading Republican incumbents in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina by an average margin of 46 percent to 41 percent.

A Senate Republican strategist said GOP candidates will have to play offense by making November’s elections more of a choice between Republican and Democratic ideologies than a referendum on Trump’s performance.

“Republicans need the presidential campaign to shift from what is currently a referendum on President Trump to what will certainly become a choice between Joe Biden and President Trump,” the aide said. “When the presidential race becomes a choice, then the faithful on both parties’ sides will go back to their own corners and each state will be decided based on its own fundamentals.”

GOP senators are taking solace in the fact that four years ago a significant number of Senate candidates ran ahead of Trump.

For example, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines MORE (R-Wis.), who was given up for lost at one point in the 2016 cycle, wound up winning 50.2 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 3 points ahead of Trump, who barely carried the state with 47.2 percent.

Several Senate Republicans, including Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (Tenn.), Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenators scramble to save infrastructure deal Schumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds MORE (Utah), have publicly criticized the slow deployment of coronavirus tests. But they have also been careful to refrain from laying the blame at Trump’s feet or criticizing him personally.

Alexander told CNN’s Dana BashDana BashKey Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package Klobuchar: If Breyer is going to retire from Supreme Court, it should be sooner rather than later Sunday shows - Surgeon general in the spotlight as delta variant spreads MORE on Thursday, “We’re not as prepared as we should have been.”

A second Republican senator who spoke to The Hill said the views within the Senate GOP conference of Trump’s handling of the crisis largely track how lawmakers viewed him before the pandemic.

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“Members of Congress who approved of his other actions approve of his response, but not others,” the lawmaker said.

Those senators who had a positive view of him before the pandemic tend to view his performance over the past two months more favorably, while those who were skeptical or privately critical of his leadership are more so today, the source said.

Even Trump’s critics are careful not to take direct shots at him.

“We got off slow in testing, there’s no question about that,” Romney told a group of Georgetown students last week during a group chat.

Romney said he was not “blaming this administration” but described the pandemic as “a black elephant” — in other words, an enormous problem “we should have seen coming.”

“Were it up to me, I would have a far more centralized coordination effort in terms of manufacturing the devices, the reagents, the swabs, the tests ... and then getting them to the places that need it most,” he said.

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GOP senators disliked Trump’s performance during press conferences of the White House coronavirus task force. They said Trump became overexposed by participating on a daily basis and made several damaging gaffes.

His most prominent stumble occurred in late April when he suggested an “injection inside” the human body such as bleach could wipe out coronavirus infections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios House rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.) told conservative talk show host Guy Benson a few days later: “Certainly, what Americans are most interested in is advice from health professionals about how to conduct their daily lives safely.”

He suggested the president play less of a role.

“To the extent that the White House decides to recraft those briefings to reflect that goal [it’s] probably a good idea,” he said.

Trump has since abandoned the daily press briefings by the task force.

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But he then alarmed GOP senators when it was revealed the White House was thinking of disbanding the task force.

“I hope the task force doesn’t wind down. I think they serve an important purpose. I think the guidance coming out of that is good and if they need to have briefings, they should,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators scramble to save infrastructure deal GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag MORE (S.D.). “I think the daily briefings probably were getting to be a little bit overkill.”

Trump quickly reversed his decision to shutter the task force, announcing it would instead operate “indefinitely.”

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-Alaska), another prominent moderate who has criticized Trump at times, said that she wants to focus more on getting the economy back on track than looking back at past mistakes.

“Everyone wants to be critical. I just want to figure out how we can figure out the concerns out there, the concerns of every American out here. I don’t find it constructive to be critical,” she said when asked about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

“I could find things to criticize if I wanted to. What I’m trying to do is find all the reasons to be supportive,” she added. “I will tell you I have had more engagement with administration folks and their teams in the past six weeks than I’ve had in six years.”