When President Trump said on Wednesday of the coronavirus pandemic, “It will go away like things go away,” Republicans in tough races no doubt shook their heads in disbelief. After all, the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the resulting economic catastrophe that’s unfolding, which may be posing an existential threat to senators facing tough reelection campaigns.

With more than 30 million unemployed, thousands of businesses shutting down for good, states facing budget crises, and an eviction tsunami on its way, the Associated Press reports that vulnerable GOP senators are frantically trying to convince their colleagues to pass an ambitious rescue bill, even if it means spending lots of money and agreeing to some Democratic demands:

Confronted with a poisonous political environment, vulnerable Senate Republicans are rushing to endorse generous jobless benefits, child care grants and more than $100 billion to help schools reopen. Several of them are refusing to allow the Senate to adjourn until Washington delivers a deal to their desperate constituents.
Sen. Martha McSally, who has fallen behind in polls in Arizona, is breaking with conservatives to endorse a temporary extension of a $600-per-week supplemental benefit. Republicans up for reelection such as John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are demanding results before returning home to campaign. And Sen. Susan Collins is in overdrive, backing help for cash-starved states and local governments — and Maine’s shipbuilding industry.

The problem they face operates at a couple of levels. The first is the substantive effects of a failure to pass a new rescue package. Without it, the economy will be in worse shape, voter anger at Trump’s mismanagement will grow, and the chance they’ll be dragged down with him will increase.

The second is the way the failure to pass a bill makes the entire Congress look. While much of the coverage of this issue succumbs to both-sidesism when, in fact, the fault lies almost entirely with the Republicans, if no bill is forthcoming the public will still wind up concluding that Congress is dysfunctional and incompetent, incapable of “getting things done.”

When they come to believe that, voters become more receptive to arguments for change and more willing to take their anger out on incumbents, whether their senator bears responsibility for the gridlock or not. Because the truth is, many of them don’t really know; even if you follow politics closely, it’s hard to tell whether Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) or Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) could have made everything turn out differently had they tried harder.

As a consequence, many voters will default to this logic: The country is a mess and Congress won’t fix it, so maybe it’s time to give some new people a chance. That sentiment is deadly for incumbents of the president’s party. And it means that the chances Democrats will win the seats they need to take control of the Senate will get much better.

One way to think about it is that most of the public doesn’t have particularly sophisticated ideas about how Congress works or what it can reasonably expect from their representatives. So they’ll blame whoever is on their particular ballot, regardless of whether it’s actually their fault.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, or even irrational. Politics has become nationalized at all levels, but especially in Congress; there are fewer and fewer liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats. So to a great degree it shouldn’t actually matter to you whether your senator is a moderate Republican or a far-right one. What makes more of a difference is which party controls Congress, and if you think that it should be the Democrats then you should get rid of your Republican senator regardless of how he or she has performed over the last six years.

Earlier this year, the eminent political scientist Richard Fenno died; he was best known for identifying “The Fenno Paradox,” the fact that most Americans dislike Congress as a whole but love their own member of Congress, creating a despised institution made up almost entirely of members adored by their constituents.

This idea goes along well with former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local,” by which O’Neill meant that even if you spend your days crafting policy on China or military spending or climate change, you’d better cater to the day-to-day needs of the folks back home.

But neither may apply anymore, at least not to the extent they once did. Now, all politics is national; even people running for city council had better match their electorate’s position on Trump. And if Congress can’t pass a rescue package, the ones paying the political price will be Republicans in swing states, even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump were the ones most responsible for the failure.

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