Washington (CNN) A little more than three months ago, as Democrats cast their ballots in the Nevada caucuses, Republicans felt confident about their chances in 2020.
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) seemed a distant, far-off threat. Democrats appeared poised to nominate a self-described socialist for president. The stock market was near a record high. The economy was roaring. President Donald Trump looked well-positioned to win a second term, and perhaps pull enough incumbent Republicans along with him to hold the party’s majority in the Senate.
Today, that view has drastically changed.
“Put it this way, I am very glad my boss isn’t on the ballot this cycle,” said one high-ranking GOP Senate aide.
Republican strategists are increasingly worried that Trump is headed for defeat in November and that he may drag other Republicans down with him.
Seven GOP operatives not directly associated with the President’s reelection campaign told CNN that Trump’s response to the pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout have significantly damaged his bid for a second term — and that the effects are starting to hurt Republicans more broadly. Some of these operatives asked not to be identified in order to speak more candidly.
Several say that public polls showing Trump trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden mirror what they are finding in their own private polls, and that the trend is bleeding into key Senate races. The GOP already had a difficult task of defending 23 Senate seats in 2020. The job of protecting its slim 3-seat majority has only gotten harder as the pandemic has unfolded. States like Arizona and North Carolina, once thought to be home to winnable Senate races now appear in jeopardy.
Trump himself is being alerted to the problems. Politico reported this week that two of Trump’s own outside political advisers, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, warned the President last week that his support was falling in some swing states.
All of this demonstrates how difficult it is to run as a Republican incumbent almost anywhere in 2020. Strategists who spoke to CNN worry that Trump has become a liability for Republicans needing to expand their coalition beyond the President’s core base of supporters.
Whereas a few months ago, they were confident of the party’s chances across the board, many of the strategists who spoke to CNN have lowered their expectations, and now talk in terms of minimizing what they worry could be a wipeout for the GOP. This leaves them hoping for a minor rather than devastating defeat, something akin to Mitt Romney’s narrow loss in 2012, when Republicans lost two Senate seats, rather than John McCain’s performance four years earlier, when they lost eight.
“Republican candidates need something more like Romney in ’12 and less like McCain in ’08,” said Liam Donovan, a GOP strategist in Washington.
The broader fear among Republicans is that the election becomes a referendum on Trump’s performance during the pandemic. Coupled with a cratered economy, the effect could be devastating by both depressing the Republican faithful and turning off swing voters.
That one-two punch could knock the GOP out of power in Washington– and it’s what has strategists hoping the President’s reelection team can successfully transform the race to a choice between Trump and an unpalatable Biden.
But that effort has become increasingly difficult against the backdrop of a pandemic that has destroyed many of the economic gains Republicans had hoped to make the foundation of their re-election argument.
“This is the one thing he (Trump) cannot change the subject on,” said a Republican strategist. “This is not a political opponent, this is not going way and he has never had to deal with something like this.”
There is some evidence Trump is not getting the bulk of the blame for the economic downturn. In the most recent CNN poll, from early May, Trump overall has a 45% approval rating. While only 42% approve of how he’s handled the pandemic, 50% still said they approve of Trump’s handling of the economy.
The Trump campaign has argued that Americans trust the President when it comes to handling the economy and they will choose him to be the person to lead the recovery.
“The economic message resonates strongly, particularly in a time like this,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “President Trump is clearly the one to restore us to that position. He did it once, he will do it again.”
Still, the worry for Republicans beyond the Trump orbit is that if there are no signs of the economy turning the corner by November that will be an impossible argument for the Trump campaign to make.
“Absent some sort of V-shaped recovery many people think he is dead in the water,” said the Republican strategist.
The Party of Trump
In the four years since winning the GOP nomination, Trump has solidified his position within the party. That has made it harder for Republicans in Congress to distance themselves from him without antagonizing his base. That, say Republican operatives, risks keeping away voters who may consider the GOP but don’t like the President.
“It’s a very, very tough environment. If you have a college degree and you live in suburbia, you don’t want to vote for us,” said one long-time Republican congressional campaign consultant, who added there is a serious worry about bleeding support from both seniors and self-described independent men.
The party’s chief concern, some of these Republicans say, should be holding onto its Senate majority. The task requires Senate candidates to make appeals to suburban voters who flipped to Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections as a reaction against Trump.
But that goal is complicated by how dependent Republican candidates are on maximal turnout for the President, even in states the Trump campaign does not expect to win. GOP Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine cannot afford a depressed Trump base in their states, even as they play up their independent identities to win swing voters.
And the concern for Republicans goes beyond endangered incumbents — including Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. There is even a chance, in a bad year for Trump, that GOP-held Senate seats in Georgia and Montana could be in trouble, said Donovan.
Distance from the President
In the meantime, the cratered economy has intensified the need for Republican senators to differentiate themselves in subtle ways from Trump and his record. Scott Reed, the political director at the US Chamber of Commerce and a veteran of Republican campaigns, said that a presidential reelection campaign is “always” a referendum on the incumbent and his party.
While that bodes poorly for Republicans if the economy fails to improve or another wave of the virus emerges this summer, Reed said the GOP isn’t necessarily doomed. Congress, he noted is, having a relative boom in popularity — 31% support in the latest Gallup poll, the highest in over a decade — thanks in part to the passage of economic relief.
Reed says incumbents should also trumpet their personal, localized accomplishments and areas where they have been independent of Trump without expressly alienating pro-Trump Republicans in their states.
Gardner, for example, has claimed to be the “chief architect” for the plan to relocate the headquarters of the federal Bureau of Land Management to Colorado, which the Trump administration announced last year. The first-term GOP senator has framed the decision as a bipartisan win for Western states, where the vast majority of federally managed land is, and a victory for Gardner against the Washington bureaucracy. It also has the benefit of having little to do with Trump himself or the economic crisis.
And in her campaign for fifth term, Collins has leaned heavily on her established political identity as an independent centrist. Her most recent TV ad touts her being named “the most bipartisan US senator” for the seventh year in a row by Georgetown University’s Lugar Center.
The line aims to combat the most consistent line of criticism from Democrats — that Collins has voted in line with the Trump administration on everything from judicial appointments to health care to the President’s acquittal on impeachment — without having to disavow Trump himself.
Republicans point out that while Democrats and progressive interest groups have already spent millions in TV and digital ads against incumbents, the GOP and its own allied PACs have yet to engage fully in the air war against Democratic challengers.
“The truth is despite being massively outspent by liberal dark money groups, Republicans are still well-positioned to hold the Senate majority in the fall,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The Trump campaign played down the worries of down-ballot Republicans, pointing out that a unified GOP offers the best chance of winning across the board in November.
“Any candidate that wants to win will run with the President,” said Erin Perrine, the Trump campaign’s deputy communications director. “He has the energy, the enthusiasm and the grass roots infrastructure. If you are a candidate you are going to want to be a part of that movement.”
But what Republican professionals say would help immensely is if the President stuck to an encouraging message on bringing the country back from the pandemic.
“When he does it right three days in a row, it really bumps his numbers,” said Reed. “We need command performance on message discipline.”