WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans have stood by President Donald Trump through controversy aftter controversy, but the rampant spread of COVID-19 is emerging as a breaking point.
With rates of infection skyrocketing in states like Florida, Arizona, Texas and California, lawmakers are hurtling toward the fall elections with the ramifications of the pandemic bearing down just as voters are deciding who to vote for in November.
While Republicans have mostly refrained from openly criticizing the president, they’re not out in public championing his handling of the pandemic either. And the summer barrels forward, more and more GOP lawmakers are sending Americans a message that stands in staunch opposition to the president on how they should stay safe in a pandemic.
“Wear a damn mask,” as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., put it late last week as more of his colleagues worry that a public health tragedy and continued economic devastation could also spell political disaster for their party come November.
Lawmakers fear that many children won’t be able to return safely to schools in the fall and their parents will as a result struggling to return to work. Hospitalizations and death rates could spike as people spend more time inside as the weather gets colder.
Trump is part of the problem, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said at the start of Tuesday’s Senate hearing on coronavirus.
“Unfortunately this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do,” Alexander said. “The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue.”
Alexander’s remarks came as Republicans have increasingly stepped out in public to talk about the importance of wearing face masks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waved a mask at cameras in Kentucky on Friday. “These are really important,” he said. “This is not as complicated as a ventilator.”
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also appeared in a video with a bandanna around his face to urge Americans to wear masks. And House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., tweeted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask with the hashtag “real men wear masks.”
But Trump has remained defiant, insisting on appearing in public without a mask on, planning campaign rallies inside massive arenas and demanding an in-person convention without social distancing measures in Jacksonville, Fla. In May, he retweeted a message linking to an anti-mask column that read “masks aren’t about public health but social control.”
But even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a man so close to the president that Trump often refers to him as “my Kevin,” told Fox News on Tuesday that it would help if the president were seen more often in public wearing a mask.
“For the 4th of July we could show our patriotism with a red, white and blue mask going out there,” McCarthy said.
When pressed on whether the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic deserved praise or was hurting Republicans politically, McConnell ignored the president’s efforts completely.
“Well, I can tell you is what Senate Republicans did was respond to the crisis by beginning to write the CARES Act in my office, which ultimately became law without a single dissent, which has done a great deal to prop up the economy,” he said.
A few of the president’s most die-hard supporters are still casting doubt on expert recommendations for fighting the virus.
“It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Tenn., said at Tuesday’s hearing. And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler last week warned ranking member Jim Jordan, one of the president’s most vocal supporters in the House, and other Republicans they wouldn’t be recognized to speak if they continued to refuse to don masks in the committee hearing room.
On this issue, those supporters of the president are increasingly isolated in their own party, a dramatic shift from the first three years of the Trump administration, when Republicans broadly stood by Trump through investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the impeachment trial and a long list of incendiary tweets and comments.
So what’s the difference? The botched response is so bad, Republicans are increasingly worried they might lose.
Since April, the Cook Political Report has moved ratings for Republicans in red states like Alaska, Georgia and even South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has a stronger challenger and tougher general election than he’s faced in the past.
Those races are still likely to stay in Republican hands, but the shifts underscore just how hard the going is for them in true toss-up contests in Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Maine. And Cook also moved Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., into the toss-up column, a seat Republicans previously weren’t as concerned about. And a Des Moines Register poll showed Sen. Jon Ernst, R-Iowa, trailing Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield 46 to 43 percent.
The slide has come in the months since coronavirus first made its way to American shores in late January. In the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of respondents said they wanted would choose Democrats on a generic congressional ballot while just 40 percent would choose Republicans. That 11-point lead is almost double the 6-point lead Democrats held in January on the generic ballot.
“You don’t have the president of the United States and his re-elect running ads in Georgia if things were fine,” said Antonia Ferrier, a former McConnell spokeswoman and longtime GOP strategist, referring to the thousands of dollars in ads Trump’s campaign is now running in a state that’s usually reliably GOP.
“The drag on Republican senators is frankly the president’s approval ratings that are not very good and a lot of that is surrounding his handling of the pandemic,” she added.
And for a president that staked his reelection campaign on a strong economy now battered by coronavirus, failing to address the public health crisis is an existential threat that many Republicans say has left them frustrated.
“It actually would help restore the economy, if we contain the disease. And the better the economy is, the better off the president is, I would think, running for reelection,” Alexander said. “So it makes no sense.”