Senate Republicans are settling on their pandemic message as they fight to save their majority: President Donald Trump did a tremendous job.
The coronavirus has killed more than 70,000 Americans, tanked the once-soaring U.S. economy and shows no signs of abating. And Trump’s ineffective leadership is largely to blame, say Democrats who are growing optimistic they can seize the Senate after being relegated to the minority for six years.
But nearly all GOP senators running for reelection have decided there’s little utility in breaking with the president, particularly after seeing some fellow Republicans collapse at the ballot box with such a strategy. And if the economy recovers and the virus dissipates by the fall, Republicans could benefit by sticking with Trump.
It’s the latest sign that Trump has nearly total control over his party. And that Republicans see their own political fortunes tied to the president’s, amid a global pandemic that will dominate both the presidential race and the battle for the Senate over the next six months.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whose race could easily decide the Senate, said Americans won’t necessarily be voting with today’s drumbeat of 2,000 deaths a day and endless quarantines in mind. He predicted by August everything will look different.
“We’ll be doing million and millions of tests, we’ll do the antibody tests, we’ll have good reports, I think, on the beginnings of economic progress,” Tillis said. “And I think all those things will benefit the president and they’ll benefit me.”
Ask a Republican about Trump’s response to the outbreak, instead of edging away from the president, you’ll likely hear cheers that he shut down travel to China early and praise for his focus on the disease.
“Generally, I feel [Trump’s] done a very good job,” said GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who faces a tough reelection race in Iowa. “He was right on it from day one prohibiting travel from certain countries and so forth. I think it was the right thing to do.”
“He exhibited tremendous leadership in this whole process, looking to people who are the experts and acting accordingly,” added Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), whose state is constantly eyed by Democrats as fertile ground.
Trump’s approval ratings have been relatively stable during the coronavirus, with Gallup even showing him close to 50 percent at one point this spring. Yet other polls have shown the public views his guidance during the coronavirus crisis as harmful. And the latest surveys in Senate battlegrounds point to serious jeopardy for the GOP majority.
In 2016, strong Republican incumbents like Rob Portman and John McCain broke with the president after the “Access Hollywood” video emerged and still won reelection. But other GOP candidates, like then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and former Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada lost after distancing themselves from Trump. Since then, the results for Republicans running away from Trump haven’t been pretty.
And, of course, going against Trump could fuel harsh public or private attacks from the president himself, increasing the risk for GOP incumbents who try to cultivate a more independent image.
“They are so afraid of distancing themselves from the president — because he’s vindictive, his base is vindictive — that they hurt themselves all the time,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
After POLITICO reported that candidates received a memo instructing them to blame China and not defend Trump on the coronavirus, the Senate GOP campaign arm publicly rejected the strategy and made clear that Republicans are sticking with the president.
Still, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-Ind.) said he is urging incumbents to highlight their own work as much as they can.
“The American people are really happy with the Republican-controlled Senate’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Young said. “So that’s what I would expect many of our candidates to run on.”
There are only two GOP senators fighting for reelection in states Trump lost, and among them, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been the most willing to criticize Trump’s news conferences and overall erratic message. She’s staking her reelection campaign on her own brand — not Trump’s.
Collins calls his response to the virus “uneven” and any plan to wind down the coronavirus task force “premature.”
“His initial step to ban travel to China was appropriate and yet he got criticized for it. It turned out to be correct,” Collins said. “On the other hand, when he veers into giving medical advice or promoting various treatments, he creates problems and should stay out of that.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) sought a federal investigation into the Trump administration’s handling of a national stockpile of ventilators and has been less willing to heap praise on the president given his state’s blue hue. Still, he’s also not willingly offering criticism either.
“It’s important to not look and try to provide some kind of a grade,” Gardner said in a virtual event in late April. “I think what’s important is trying to do better and better every day.”
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Mark Kelly in the fall has similarly declined to point fingers. Her state is being targeted by Democrats both at the presidential level and on the Senate map and she’s generally been supportive of the president.
McSally spent Tuesday in an Arizona mask manufacturing plant with Trump and told Fox News the president has “been cheerleading for Americans and Arizonans.”
Two Democrats are running for reelection in states Trump won, and neither is making criticism of Trump’s response a centerpiece of their campaign. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said the pandemic will “dominate the discussion” from now through November but declined to ding GOP opponent John James over the matter. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) has questioned why states are competing against one another for supplies.
For most Republicans, there’s little hope of being reelected if Trump doesn’t win their purple or red states, anyway. Similarly, they argue there’s little reason to criticize a federal response that has left the United States with a patchwork of regional lockdown policies.
“Obviously the president has his detractors and anything he does, they will find a reason to criticize,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Sometimes you do make mistakes. Any of us do. And there’s no playbook for this. And I think certainly he’s given it his all, and I don’t know what else to ask.”
“I think he’s done a good job, I do,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who is taking on a challenge from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana. “The president prepared for the worst, and thankfully we’re starting to see declines in infection rates and now it’s time to start safely opening up the economy.”
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana won reelection in 2018 by emphasizing his cooperation with Trump even while helping take down his Veterans Affairs nominee. A former head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, the burly Montana farmer scoffed at rosy assessments by potentially vulnerable incumbents.
“The president has not taken this thing by the horns and treated it like a natural disaster or a war, as he put it,” he said. “The truth is that this could have been handled a hell of a lot better with far fewer deaths.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.