Republicans see 'grim' Senate map and edge away from Trump

Maine Sen. Susan Collins

Vulnerable Republicans are increasingly taking careful, but clear, steps to distance themselves from President Donald Trump, one sign of a new wave of GOP anxiety that the president's crisis-to-crisis reelection bid could bring down Senate candidates across the country.

In key races from Arizona to Texas, Kansas and Maine, Republican senators long afraid of the president’s power to strike back at his critics are starting to break with the president — particularly over his handling of the pandemic — in the final stretch of the election. GOP strategists say the distancing reflects a startling erosion of support over a brutal 10-day stretch for Trump, starting with his seething debate performance when he did not clearly denounce a white supremacist group through his hospitalization with COVID-19 and attempts to downplay the virus's danger.

Even the somewhat subtle moves away from Trump are notable. For years, Republican lawmakers have been loath to criticize the president — and have gone to great lengths to dodge questions — fearful of angering Trump supporters they need to win. But with control of the Senate in the balance, GOP lawmakers appear to be shifting quickly to do what’s necessary to save their seats.

“The Senate map is looking exceedingly grim,” said one major GOP donor, Dan Eberhart.

Republican prospects for holding its 53-47 majority have been darkening for months. But recent upheaval at the White House has accelerated the trend, according to conversations with a half-dozen GOP strategists and campaign advisers, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations.

The strategists noted the decision to rush to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett has not swung voters toward the GOP as hoped. Several noted internal polls suggested Republican-leaning, undecided voters were particularly turned off by the president’s debate performance and his conduct since being diagnosed with the coronavirus. It wasn’t clear that these voters would cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden, but they might stay home out of what one strategist described as a feeling of Trump fatigue.

Public polling shows Trump trailing Biden nationally but typically by smaller numbers in key battleground states.

“I think a lot of Republicans are worried that this is a jailbreak moment, and people who have been sitting on the fence looking for a rationale to stick with the president are instead abandoning the ship,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic.

To be sure, Trump has a history of political resilience. Wednesday marked the four year anniversary of the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women. Republicans quickly abandoned him then, and his poll numbers sunk, but he still won weeks later.

Trump's behavior this week hasn't prompted that sort of GOP rebuke. But Republicans expressed clear frustration with Trump’s erratic approach to negotiations on a stimulus bill aimed at mitigating the economic toll of the pandemic. Trump abruptly called off talks, then tried to restart them Wednesday, causing the stock market to plummet and then somewhat recover.

On Monday, as he returned from the hospital, a still-contagious Trump paused for a photo op at the White House, removed his mask and later tweeted that people should not fear the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.

“I couldn’t help but think that sent the wrong signal,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, whose tight race is among a handful that could cost Republicans control of the Senate. “I did not think that it set a good example at all.”

Collins began airing an ad this week that urges voters to vote for her “no matter who you’re voting for for president."

PHOTO: Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during a Senate Armed Subcommittee hearing on preventing sexual assault where she spoke about her experience of being sexually assaulted in the military on Capitol Hill, March 6, 2019.

In Arizona, another endangered Republican, Sen. Martha McSally, struggled when asked whether she was proud to serve under the president during her Air Force career.

“I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes,” McSally replied during a debate against Mark Kelly, one of multiple Democrats who have bested their Republican incumbents in fundraising.

Democrats have long considered Maine and Arizona, along with Colorado and North Carolina, top targets in their effort to gain the four seats they need to win Senate control. (It's only three if Biden wins the White House.) But the race for Senate majority has been widening into reliably Republican states, now including Iowa, Alaska, Kansas and Montana. In North Carolina, meanwhile, Democrat Cal Cunningham's recent sexting scandal has complicated his drive against Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.

Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, is suddenly scrambling.

Trump won the state by 14 percentage points in 2016. Still, a major Republican political committee aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began spending nearly $10 million on TV and radio ads this week attacking Graham's Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison.

Donors have not given up on trying to hold the Senate. As Trump’s fundraising has plateaued in recent months, it has spiked for Republican outside groups that are supporting House and Senate candidates.

The massive influx of new money for House and Senate committee will enable them to flood competitive races with advertising that embraces conventional Republican themes. (The South Carolina TV ad by the Senate Leadership Fund shows pictures of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and says, “Liberal Jaime Harrison is their guy, not ours.”)

The intention is to extend a lifeline to candidates who otherwise would have relied on the president’s political operation for support, according to two Republican strategists with direct knowledge of the House and Senate campaign plans.

Still, there's little doubt Republican senators' fortunes are linked to the president and his volatile political instincts. In the highly partisan environment, ticket-splitting — voting for one party for president and another for Senate, say — has become increasingly rare. In 2016, Republican Senate candidates lost in every state Trump lost and won where Trump won.

One GOP adviser said most Republican candidates are not running ahead of Trump in polling their states. And when his support drops, their support usually does, too.

Even in red states, Republicans are starting to make clear they aren't following Trump when it comes to the pandemic.

Sen. John Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle editorial board on Monday that Trump “let his guard down" and said his diagnosis should be a reminder to "exercise self-discipline.”

In another GOP bastion, Republican Senate nominee Roger Marshall borrowed Trump's slogan for a “Keep Kansas Great” bus tour on Tuesday, but not his health advice.

“Of course, I think everyone should respect the virus,” said Marshall, a doctor. “I’m really encouraging everyone to wear a mask when they can, to keep their physical distance, wash their hands, all those types of things.”

Marshall was quickly reminded of his party's competing forces. As he spoke, he was briefly interrupted by a woman who appeared to be a opponent of wearing masks, yelling, “Stop telling people that!”

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'An embarrassment': Trump tweet angers pandemic survivors

Dizzy with a soaring fever and unable to breathe, Scott Sedlacek had one thing going for him: He was among the first people to be treated for COVID-19 at Seattle's Swedish Medical Center, and the doctors and nurses were able to give him plenty of attention.

The 64-year-old recovered after being treated with a bronchial nebulizer in March, but the ensuing months have done little to dull the trauma of his illness. Hearing of President Donald Trump's advice by Tweet and video on Monday not to fear the disease — as well as the president's insistence on riding in a motorcade outside Walter Reed Medical Center and returning to the White House while still infectious — enraged him.

“I’m so glad that he appears to be doing well, that he has doctors who can give him experimental drugs that aren’t available to the masses,” Sedlacek said. “For the rest of us, who are trying to protect ourselves, that behavior is an embarrassment.”

COVID-19 has infected about 7.5 million Americans, leaving more than 210,000 dead and millions more unemployed, including Sedlacek. The U.S. has less than 5% of the globe’s population but more than 20% of the reported deaths.

Yet the world's highest-profile coronavirus patient tweeted on Monday, as he was due to be released from the hospital following a three-day stay: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

He reiterated the message in a video Monday night, saying “Be careful,” but “don't let it dominate you.”

“You’re going to beat it," he said. "We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines.”

The advice fit in with Trump's downplaying of the virus, his ridiculing of those who wear masks to protect themselves and others, and his insistence on holding rallies and White House events in contravention of federal guidelines. But emergency room doctors, public health experts, survivors of the disease and those who have lost loved ones were nevertheless aghast, saying his cavalier words were especially dangerous at a time when infections are on the rise in many places.

Marc Papaj, a Seneca Nation member who lives in Orchard Park, New York, lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to COVID-19. He was finding it tough to follow the president’s advice not to let the virus “dominate your life.”

“The loss of my dearest family members will forever dominate my life in every way for all of my days,” Papaj said, adding this about Trump: “He does not care about any of us — he's feeling good.”

Dr. Tien Vo, who has administered more than 40,000 coronavirus tests at his clinics in California’s Imperial County, had this to say: “Oh, my Lord. That’s a very bad recommendation from the president.”

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 The county is a farming region along the Mexican border that, at one point, had California's highest infection rate. Its 180,000 residents are largely Latino and low-income, groups that have suffered disproportionately from the virus. Cases overwhelmed its two hospitals in May.

“The president has access to the best medical care in the world, along with a helicopter to transport him to the hospital as needed,” Dr. Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington's School of Public Health, wrote in an email. “The rest of us who don’t have such ready access to care should continue to worry about covid, which has killed a million people around the world in just a handful of months."

Trump supporters still not convinced about the threat

Some of Trump's supporters said they wouldn't be swayed by the White House outbreak: Wearing a mask is a choice, and to mandate its use limits freedom, said Melissa Blundo, chairwoman of the “No Mask Nevada” PAC.

“I’m not saying the coronavirus isn’t real. I’m not saying that it isn’t a pandemic," she said. "I believe tuberculosis could be called a pandemic when it kills a person every 21 seconds, but we haven’t shut down the entire world. I just find it interesting that we are taking this particular pandemic and shutting down economies.”

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show 8,920 cases of tuberculosis in 2019. In 2017, the most recent year it reported deaths, 515 died from the bacterial lung infection.

Candy Boyd, the owner of Boyd Funeral Home in Los Angeles, which serves many Black families, said Trump’s comments were infuriating and an "example of him not living in reality.” The funeral home receives fewer virus victims now than it did in the spring, when it was several a day, but people continue to die, she said.

“We have people dying and this is a joke to him,” Boyd said. “I don’t take that lightly. This is sad. This is absurd.”

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‘Do they think ... rules for everybody else do not apply to them?’: Chris Wallace slams Trump’s family for refusing masks at debate

Chris Wallace and Steve Cortes appear on "Fox News Sunday." Screenshot/Fox

Inside a Cleveland auditorium on Tuesday, everyone watching President Trump debate former vice president Joe Biden wore a mask, with a notable exception: Trump’s guests, including the first family.

Fox News host Chris Wallace grilled Trump campaign spokesman Steve Cortes about why the president's family refused to wear masks at the first presidential debate, flouting the venue's rules.

On Sunday, the debate’s moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, demanded answers from the Trump campaign for flouting the debate host’s rules — especially in light of Friday’s news that both the president and first lady Melania Trump later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The rules from the Cleveland Clinic could not have been more clear. Everyone, everyone in the audience was to wear a mask,” Wallace said on “Fox News Sunday.” “After the first family came in, they all took off their masks. So did the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Do they think that the health and safety rules for everybody else do not apply to them?”

When Steve Cortes, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, started arguing that the masks weren’t necessary because attendees had been tested for the virus, Wallace cut him off.

“Steve, it doesn’t matter. Everyone in that room was tested. The Cleveland Clinic regulation was, it didn’t matter. Everyone except for the three of us onstage was to wear a mask,” Wallace said.

The interview tied off a weekend where Wallace was a central, often critical, voice in Fox News’s coverage of Trump’s positive diagnosis — a story that could personally affect him after he shared a stage with the president. Wallace has said he won’t be tested until Monday.

On Friday, Wallace broke news that illustrated Trump’s lax approach to safety guidelines, revealing to viewers that the president violated an “honor system” by showing up to the debate without already having tested negative. Wallace also said Trump and his staff didn’t wear masks on a walk-through before the debate.

On Sunday, Wallace repeatedly grilled Cortes on why Trump’s guests had disregarded mask rules, which both campaigns had agreed to ahead of time. In the audience, the first lady and the president’s children, Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, and Tiffany, all shunned masks, as did Trump’s other guests, including Meadows, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

When Cleveland Clinic staffers offered the group face coverings, they were rebuffed.

“Everybody was told to wear a mask. Why did the first family and the chief of staff believe that the rules for everybody else didn’t apply to them?” Wallace asked.

Cortes argued that while Trump believes masks are “useful,” “we also believe in some element of individual choice. People were distanced, and they had been tested.”

Indeed, the Cleveland Clinic did test all attendees with PCR, the nasal swab considered the best standard, The Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis, Shawn Boburg and Josh Dawsey reported. But the Trump campaign was allowed to do its own testing, and used instead a rapid test that studies have found can miss infections up to 30 percent of the time.

Wallace pressed Cortes again. “No,” he said, “those were the rules, and there was no freedom of choice. They broke the rules. Why did they break the rules?”

Instead of answering, Cortes accused Wallace of “haranguing” the president during the debate, repeating Trump campaign claims that Wallace had sided too often with Biden. Then Cortes added again, “Everyone there was tested in the crowd, they were distanced from each other, people can make reasonable decisions for themselves.”

Wallace scoffed at that — and said the Commission on Presidential Debates had made it clear that not wearing a mask at future debates would lead to an ejection from the venue.

“No, actually they can’t,” Wallace responded. “There are the rules, and they’ll be kicked out next time.”

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