Vulnerable GOP Senators Hitch Pandemic Response to Governors

A pair of Republican senators running for re-election in swing states are hitching their political fortunes to their work with Democratic governors, whose response to the coronavirus has bolstered their popularity.

The tactic highlights their own efforts to keep constituents healthy and help the economy, touts their willingness to work across the aisle, and ties them to chief executives currently enjoying higher public ratings than President Donald Trump, whose efforts to address the pandemic have garnered criticism.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) featured complimentary remarks made about him by Gov. Jared Polis in a TV ad last week, and he’s recently talked up his bipartisan work with Democrats.

“Republicans and Democrats realize there’s no reason to bear that mantle of party,” Gardner said on the Senate floor earlier this month. “Because so many people are hurting and we know what needs to be done for the country to work together to be nonpartisan, to provide the relief that real individuals need in real time.”

Photographer: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg
Sen. Cory Gardner

That was a different tone from earlier this year when Gardner tied his re-election to Trump, detailing the pair’s shared accomplishments at a Colorado Springs rally held two weeks after the senator voted to acquit the president in his impeachment trial.

“He’s very much kind of recasting himself as this pragmatic, bipartisan senator rather than the staunch ally of the president he was portraying himself as until fairly recently,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

Gardner is likely to face former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), whom he has trailed in recent polls.

A year ago, Gardner’s working with Polis might have caused problems with his base, said Dick Wadhams, a GOP political consultant and former Colorado Republican party chairman. But since then, Gardner has fended off the threat of a primary challenge and received Trump’s support when he visited the state in February.

“The Republican base is locked in for Cory,” Wadhams said. “I think Sen. Gardner is playing it just right.”

Social Distancing

Sen. Thom Tillis(R-N.C.) also has praised Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year and has won strong public approval for his efforts to combat the virus. During a series of recent tele-townhalls, Tillis championed many of the governor’s plans and held a joint session with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, a Democrat.

Tillis has urged constituents to follow social distancing rules and get over their resistance to wearing masks in order for Cooper’s plans to be successful. He said it’s not an “arbitrary, capricious” demand of a politician but the recommendation of doctors.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to refuse to wear a mask when we know this virus wins when we don’t,” Tillis said in a tele-townhall meeting Wednesday during which he supported the governor’s step-by-step approach to reopening the state.

The reopening has “to be done safely,” said Tillis, who faces former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D).

Not all vulnerable incumbents see a political advantage in allying with their governors. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is showing less interest in working together with the state’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who is challenging Daines.

Eric Raile, a Montana State University political scientist, said Bullock’s high approval rating is likely due in part to the “rally round the flag’” effect seen during times of crisis. But Raile said there’s subsequently been pushback against Bullock’s stay-at-home orders.

Daines can’t garner the amount of media attention Bullock can as the state’s executive in charge of the crisis, but he has an incumbent’s advantage and is using high-volume advertising to drive home his own message, Raile said. Rather than focus on challenging the state response, he’s attacking the role of China in creating the crisis, he said.

‘Under the Bus’

Both GOP senators in Georgia are running in a state with a governor of their own party. But Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue may not get much of a boost from an alliance with Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been criticized for being late to issue a stay-at-home order and then for being the first governor to approve the reopening of businesses.

Perdue will land a Democratic opponent after the June 9 primary or, if necessary, Aug. 11 runoff. Loeffler faces multiple challengers in an all-party primary in November in her bid to win the seat she was temporarily appointed to fill earlier this year.

Amy Steigerwalt, a political scientist at Georgia State University, said Kemp’s low poll numbers might not be fully deserved, especially after Trump threw him “under the bus” and criticized the governor for carrying out a reopening plan that originally appeared to have the president’s backing. But it still bodes poorly for Senate Republicans, particularly Perdue, who needs to win more than his base voters to prevail in what an increasingly “purplish” state, she said.

“If Kemp’s numbers are low, that means people are unhappy with their current situation in Georgia, and that ultimately will affect how they’re voting in the Senate races,” Steigerwalt said.

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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