Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, his hospitalization, and his seemingly casual attitude have cratered his standing with the public and could cause his fellow Republicans collateral damage up and down the ballot next month. But it could be out of the news before the virus is out of Trump.
That’s how Republican strategists working on 2020 races mostly reacted to Trump’s coronavirus news. They didn’t think that the contagious president taking a Sunday drive with Secret Service agents or removing his mask before entering the White House was not a big deal. It’s just after four years of Trump, something weirder can and often does happen, like the Access Hollywood tape that looked like it would torpedo Trump’s candidacy at this point in the 2016 campaign.
One Republican operative working on several competitive races told Intelligencer on Monday, “We’re 29 days out, I think we’re also 29 news cycles out.” Republicans were not blasé about Trump’s diagnosis and behavior though — there simply was still uncertainty about what impact it would have. One Republican strategist working on Senate races said, “Given the nature of everything in 72 hours, anyone who is telling you this is where it’s going is totally lying.”
Polls in recent days have shown that Trump’s deficit against Joe Biden is bigger than ever. A CNN poll released Tuesday gave Biden a 57-41 lead. Even Trump’s favorite pollster, Rasmussen, showed a similar result. If these seeming outliers are sustained in the coming days and weeks, it could prove cataclysmic for vulnerable Republican senators reliant on the president to hold on to their four-seat Senate majority.
However, there was still a sense that this might be just a fleeting news story, just like a thousand other scandals over the past four years, large and small. One swing-state Republican operative thought this too would pass. “The campaign will turn to something different, I guarantee it,” the operative promised. “The virus is no different than it was a week ago, it’s just been thrust into the national spotlight because of the most powerful person on the planet.”
Democrats were far more optimistic about the turn of events. As one Democratic operative said of Trump, “As long he stays alive, polls plummet for him.” Another strategist working on Senate races noted that Trump’s diagnosis simply exaggerates the problems that Republicans have on health care. The strategist noted the winning message for Democrats in Senate races has been about Republicans trying to kill the Affordable Care Act and its protections for preexisting conditions, such as a coronavirus diagnosis. The virus’s resurgence in headlines allows them to reinforce that message.
Trump’s behavior even sparked rare criticism from Republican senators facing competitive races, who gave him the type of mild chastisement that has been reserved for only the gravest White House scandals over the past four years.
Texas senator John Cornyn, leading his Democratic opponent in polls, told the Houston Chronicle, “I think he let his guard down [on the coronavirus]. I think in his desire to try to demonstrate that we are somehow coming out of this and that the danger is not still with us — I think he got out over his skis and frankly, I think it’s a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self discipline.”
Susan Collins of Maine, who is trailing her rival, criticized Trump for taking off his mask on the White House balcony after returning home from the hospital with a dramatic helicopter landing on Monday evening. “I couldn’t help but think that he sent the wrong signal, given that he’s infected with COVID-19 and that there are many people in his immediate circle who have the virus,” she said. “I did not think that was a good example at all.”
The spotlight is likely to shift to the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett — scheduled to begin soon — and GOP operatives were confident that it would dominate the news, or as one Republican working on several competitive races said: “It will be all Coney Barrett all the time next week.” Another strategist looked back to 2018 when Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s polarizing nomination boosted some Republicans taking on incumbent Democratic senators in red states. “Amy Coney Barrett is good for Republicans up and down the ballot,” the strategist said.
But the confirmation hearings will have the shadow of the virus hanging over them. Three Republican senators, including two on the Senate Judiciary Committee — Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah — have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a White House reception for Barrett that has been fingered as a potential superspreader event. The widening outbreak has forced the Senate to go out of session for two weeks and is likely to leave Barrett as the first Supreme Court nominee to be grilled via Zoom.
Some Democrats also felt comfortable with the Supreme Court as the top issue because they said it is far more familiar ground than the president being diagnosed with a potentially fatal virus. “Amy Coney Barrett, I know how that plays out and I know how to message it,” said a veteran Democrat operative. “However, when it comes to Trump himself, who knows how it is going to shake out.”
Of course, Senate races aren’t just about the top of the ticket and national issues. In Iowa, candidates fight over ethanol and, in Alaska, over the Pebble Mine. Cal Cunningham, the Democratic nominee in North Carolina, was caught exchanging sexual text messages with a married woman who is not his wife during the campaign. The scandal gave Republicans new hope for Tillis in a race that was trending away from them. While dismayed by the news, Democrats were hopeful that an extramarital affair was no longer a death blow in politics. After all, they too had been through four years of Donald Trump.