Virus Threatens GOP’s Senate Majority as Economic Boom Goes Bust

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Senate Republicans’ chances of keeping the majority are diminishing as the coronavirus crisis threatens to topple an economy party leaders hoped would power them to re-election, political strategists and analysts said.

The non-partisan Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor recently wrote that the Democrats’ odds are on the rise, as she downgraded the re-election prospects of some GOP incumbents. She cited the coronavirus emergency and President Donald Trump’s handling of it, combined with the likelihood that former Vice President Joe Biden (D) will be the Democratic nominee.

“All these things taken together mean that the chances of Democrats taking back the Senate are rising, and is now close to 50-50 odds,” she said.

The changing outlook has put more pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) to push through an economic package that will give his most vulnerable members a lifeline when they return home. The Senate leader has kept his chamber in session until a deal could be reached with Democrats.

Republican budget expert Bill Hoagland and others said McConnell worked hard in the past two years to avoid any fiscal “cliffs” or calamities that could emerge in the 2020 election year.

McConnell encouraged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to work with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.) to negotiate a two-year deal that raised the discretionary spending caps and extended the federal debt limit beyond the election time period. He also deferred to both to lock in spending agreements for 2020 to avoid another government “shutdown” ahead of the election.

But the coronavirus threat upended McConnell’s well-laid plans, with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. projecting a 24% decline in second-quarter GDP.

(Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the press on March 23 as lawmakers negotiate a package to address the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The economy is no longer the “ace in the hole” GOP leaders and Trump planned to use as the centerpiece of their re-election campaigns, Hoagland said.

Democrats agree. The crisis brought about by the coronavirus is a game changer, said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who previously worked for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“The president himself and both House and Senate Republicans have tied their electoral successes to the economy, and the way the stock market has been tanking, that’s going to hurt them come November,” Manley said.

Much could happen between now and November that could affect the election outcomes, including which party can convince swing voters it is best able to oversee an economic recovery, said one Republican strategist.

“The economy is still going to be an issue, but it’s going to transform to which vision and philosophy do you trust to get the economy going again — and we’re still pretty far out,” GOP consultant Brad Todd said. He said the Democrats tried to “lard up the economic recovery bill with other political priorities that are ideological in nature and have nothing to do with the economy.”

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell, just booked $67 million for fall ads. It’s main purpose is to protect and expand the GOP Senate majority. Of the $67 million, $10.8 million is allotted to Kentucky, where McConnell is facing a strong challenge from former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D).

Expanding Map

Democrats must net at least three seats to win control of the chamber and are eying a growing number of seats they believe they can flip.

“As strong Democratic candidates continue to build out winning operations and more races keep shifting in our direction, we’re expanding the map and creating more paths to ending Mitch McConnell’s majority,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Cook Political Report already rated as toss-ups the re-election bids of Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chamber’s most endangered Republicans, and Sens. Susan Collins(R-Maine) and Thom Tillis(R-N.C.).

Cook also recently downgraded others, moving the race of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) from the Likely Republican column to Lean Republican.

Manley said Cook’s recent downgrade of Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) race is an example of how the economic turmoil could filter down to others considered in safe races. The contest with Cornyn, until recently McConnell’s top deputy, was moved from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.

“If these Republicans up for re-election become really vulnerable, then that’s going to impact the second tier races as well,” Manley said.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) now is also facing a competitive race after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) recently entered the race. A poll conducted March 12-13 by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Daines and Bullock tied 47%, with 6% undecided.

Related controversies have also emerged was majority-affecting wild cards.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) was among a number of senators found to have sold off stocks following a January 24 senators-only briefing on the pandemic. Loeffler, who’s married to the head of the New York Stock Exchange and whom Cook has in the ‘Leans Republican’ column, called allegations of impropriety regarding stock sales following a coronavirus briefing “ridiculous and baseless.”

Damage Done

Hoagland said Republicans hope the stimulus will turn the economy around by mid-summer, but he said it probably won’t change the downward trajectory.

“We’ll have negative growth in this second quarter and that will probably be followed by another quarter of negative growth which will mean we will be in a recession,” Hoagland said.

Alan I. Abramowitz of Sabato’s Crystal Ball recently said some forecasters are predicting a major recession, with the economy shrinking by 5% or more in the second quarter, and that will have political consequences.

“That’s significant because, in many election forecasting models, including my own ‘time for change’ model, economic growth in the second quarter is a key predictor of the election results,” Abramowitz said. Even if the economy recovers later in the year, “the most electorally-salient perceptions will nonetheless be formed in the spring and summer.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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