The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the GOP may lose everything

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) speaks at the National Press Club in in 2019. Bullock is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines for his seat.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) speaks at the National Press Club in in 2019. Bullock is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines for his seat. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) says that when he first announced he would run for the U.S. Senate, he “didn’t know what Montana and the country was going to look like in the short period thereafter.” With the covid-19 crisis, all his time has been taken up by being a governor, not a candidate. So far, that has only helped him in his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

In Maine, House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat seeking to end the long career of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, says the pandemic has “laid bare the inequities that already existed” and underscored the need for a “vision of what it means to work together and for each other instead of trying to sow divisiveness.” This brings home Gideon’s case against Collins’s willingness to ally with President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), two of the most divisive figures in American politics.

Colorado’s former governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat with a good chance of ousting incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, expresses a sense of gravity about this campaign that he never felt in his races for mayor of Denver or governor.

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“I will never forgive myself if I lose it,” Hickenlooper told me, “and I will do everything in my power, I will work as hard as humanly possible, to make sure that I win this, just because I feel in my bones that our democracy has been so weakened by this relentless partisanship, the constant division.”

And Democrat Cal Cunningham, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who is facing incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), says that many North Carolinians today feel “an urgency that did not exist prior to March of this year” about “health coverage . . . about jobs, the economy.”

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Issues that were once “percolating for many” are now “personal for everyone.”

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

If Bullock, Gideon, Hickenlooper and Cunningham all win, Democrats will likely take over the U.S. Senate and end McConnell’s days as majority leader.

And they are not the only challengers with a decent shot at Republican seats. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly has been running ahead of Republican Sen. Martha McSally, and Republicans face vulnerabilities in Iowa, Georgia, possibly Kansas and perhaps even in South Carolina. McConnell, though favored, faces a spirited opponent in Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot. Only one Democratic incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, is an underdog.

Having disastrously bungled the pandemic, Trump is not only falling well behind former vice president Joe Biden in the polls; he could also be creating a tidal wave that would give Democrats unified control of the federal government’s elected branches.

Hickenlooper and Gideon are running in states Trump lost in 2016, and the president’s increasing vulnerability in Arizona and North Carolina could open the way for Kelly and Cunningham. And Trump’s weakness in once-secure Montana means that Bullock, always more popular than his party, may not have to rely on as much ticket-splitting as he has in the past.

A poll last week by Montana State University showed that Trump, who won Montana by 20 points in 2016, led Biden by just under six percentage points. The same survey found Bullock with a 70 percent approval rating for his handling of the pandemic and a seven-point lead over Daines.

My conversations with four of the top Senate challengers suggested that the coronavirus crisis has reinforced core arguments that helped the Democrats win the House in 2018, particularly around access to health care, while also increasing the saliency of inequality — in both economic and health outcomes — as a mainstream concern.

At the same time, Trump’s brutal belligerence has turned Democratic candidates into missionaries of concord. This allows them to be implicitly critical of the president and reach out to his one-time supporters at the same time.

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Thus Cunningham speaks of being “a champion for everybody” and criticizes a Republican Senate where “partisan considerations are overriding institutional considerations.” Gideon notes that she reorganized the seating of the Maine House of Representatives to mix Republicans and Democrats. “When they sit next to each other,” she said, “they see each other as human beings.”

For Hickenlooper, a time of “suffering in every direction” raises the most basic questions about life — and politics.

“You’re never going to be able to control what life throws your way, but you can control whether it makes you better, or stronger, how you respond to it,” Hickenlooper said. “I think this is true of the country. We’re going to have to use this experience to be a stronger, more unified country.”

If the GOP does lose everything, it will be because the Trumpian circus-plus-horror-show is entirely off-key for an electorate that has so much to be serious about.

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Read more:

Brian Klaas: Trump needs two electoral blocs to win. The pandemic is driving a wedge between them.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s damage is already done. He may not be able to save himself.

Eugene Robinson: Democrats always appeal to the mind. Now they must go for the gut.

Henry Olsen: Republicans have to run the campaign that Trump won’t

Karen Tumulty: Young people really don’t like Trump. And more of them plan to vote.

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Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

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Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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