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 Trump’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.

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 Daines (R-Mont.), a once-safe incumbent, now trailing his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Bullock, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who was also seen as cruising to reelection, in a dead heat with Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

Incumbent GOP Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.) are well behind in the polls, while Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Susan Collins (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 Clinton 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.”

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 Hickenlooper (D) ahead of Gardner by nearly 20 points.

A new Hart Research Associates poll shows that former Vice President Joe Biden 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 Johnson (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 Alexander (Tenn.), Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (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 Bash 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.

“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.

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 McConnell (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.

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 Thune (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 Murkowski (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.”

Tags Arizona Colorado Coronavirus Cory Gardner Dana Bash Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Iowa Joe Biden John Hickenlooper John Thune Joni Ernst Lamar Alexander Lisa Murkowski Maine Martha McSally Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Montana North Carolina Ron Johnson Senate majority Steve Bullock Steve Daines Susan Collins Thom Tillis
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