Vulnerable Republicans are beginning to distance themselves from President Trump’s dismissive response to the coronavirus pandemic and his dramatic termination of negotiations with congressional Democrats over federal economic relief, with the latest cracks carrying enormous implications for Trump and the party with just four weeks until Election Day.
For some Republicans, the 11th-hour repositioning may not be enough to stave off defeat. But the criticism, however muted, illuminates the extent of the crisis inside a party that is growing alarmed about its political fate and confused by Trump’s tweets and decision-making.
“It’s a Republican Party unraveling,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “They’re seeking to rid themselves of Trump at this juncture but realize they can’t quite yet. But they know his name is no longer kinetic on the campaign trail.”
GOP strategists said on Wednesday that the angst in the party could exacerbate in the coming weeks if stock markets are throttled by Trump cutting off talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a broader stimulus bill and if the pandemic’s toll worsens as temperatures drop across the nation and people move indoors.
Underscoring Trump’s unpredictability was the White House’s overtures to Pelosi Wednesday for a deal to rescue the airline industry.
“There are cracks and fissures all over the ice,” said Republican consultant Rick Tyler, a Trump critic. “The president spent months ignoring the virus and talking about the economy coming back. But when the president catches the virus and the economy doesn’t come back, what do you do? You try to survive.”
One senior GOP official close to Trump, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, compared this crossroads to when the “Access Hollywood” story broke in October 2016 and many Republicans distanced themselves from Trump, who on tape had bragged in vulgar terms about groping women.
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” the senior official said. “This is like ‘Access Hollywood’ because we’re all seeing terrible poll numbers. We didn’t think it’d be this bad at this point. Everyone is wondering where the bottom is, and they’re figuring out what they need to do.”
The tumult within the GOP comes as the party remains jolted by Trump’s recent hospitalization and reevaluates the cost of being in lockstep with a president whose message on the virus that has ravaged families and killed more than 200,000 Americans is “don’t let it dominate you.”
In a video Wednesday night, Trump said contracting the disease was a “blessing from God.”
It is also a sudden turn for a party that last week was largely circumspect about Trump’s conduct at the first presidential debate, where he made incendiary remarks on white supremacy and baseless claims of electoral fraud, including an exchange where he said the extremist Proud Boys, a male-only far-right group known for street violence, should “stand back and stand by.”
And it comes as Trump has been increasingly fixated on the conspiracy theory that former president Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton schemed to undermine his candidacy by tying him to Russia, tweeting or retweeting about it nearly 50 times since Tuesday night. He has also elevated calls from supporters for Attorney General William P. Barr to prosecute Obama administration officials and demanded to know why no one had been arrested.
Trump loyalists on Wednesday urged Republicans to hold firm as Vice President Pence, a favorite of conservatives, sought to make a forceful case for the president’s reelection at his debate in Salt Lake City with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the running mate of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“There is a long way to go and there is a pent-up Trump vote that I believe is underreported,” former Trump campaign adviser Ed Brookover said. “The president has his pulse on the country and a lot of America is going to get out there and make sure he has four more years.”
Others suggested that next week’s Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, could be a galvanizing moment for the party if Democrats issue searing criticism of Barrett.
“People’s memories are so short that what has them down today could be forgotten by next week if the court or whatever else becomes the issue,” said Tom Ingram, a Tennessee-based GOP strategist. “It’s natural for this period to be a little nerve-racking for Republicans, given the president’s illness and the way he handled the first debate. That doesn’t mean it lasts.”
Still, the unease has been palpable this week as Republicans have appeared on debate stages and elsewhere, venting their frustrations after watching their Democratic challengers rise in the polls and raise millions.
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), a conservative in a tight race and close to GOP leaders, said this week that Trump “let his guard down” and “got out over his skis” by playing down the threat of the coronavirus.
“He tries to balance that with saying, ‘Well you know, we got this.’ And clearly we don’t have this,” Cornyn said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board.
Cornyn later said, “I think the biggest mistake people make in public life is not telling the truth, particularly in something with as much public interest as here because you know the real story is going to come out.”
Kevin Madden, a former top aide to House Republican leaders, said the senator’s comments nod to partywide fears.
“If it’s happening with Cornyn in a safe spot, it’s probably more widespread in the Senate conference and in the House,” Madden said. “It’s a reflection of worries about the impact everything is having on colleagues down ballot and across the country who are in much more difficult races.”
But Madden said most Republicans, even if eager to back away from Trump, “can’t do so without losing the base energy that they’ve become dependent on if they want to get across the 50-percent threshold.”
When asked for a response to the flurry of remarks by Cornyn and other Republicans about Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said in a statement that Trump “has been clear. People should be careful and take precautions, but we cannot allow the virus to dictate a complete shutdown of our society.”
Murtaugh added that Trump is “facing covid head on, just as he has been fighting for the country the last four years.”
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally (R), struggling to hold on to her seat against Democrat Mark Kelly, whose candidacy has become a cause for Democrats nationwide, was evasive on Tuesday night at a debate when she was asked about whether she is proud of her support for Trump.
“I’m proud to be fighting for Arizona every single day,” McSally said, looking straight ahead and sticking to her talking points as the moderator pressed for clarity. “I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes.”
Biden is leading Trump by eight percentage points in Arizona, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1996, according to a New York Times-Siena College poll this week. The poll also finds that Kelly, a retired astronaut, is leading McSally, 50 percent to 39 percent.
Polling nationally shows the Republican Senate majority at risk with strongholds in the Deep South, such as South Carolina and Georgia, in play, and Biden leads Trump in a trio of key states that the president won four years ago, according to new polling released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University.
In Florida, Biden is leading Trump 51 percent to 40 percent among likely voters. That is a much wider lead than in early September, when Biden took 48 percent to Trump’s 45 percent. The change has been driven mainly by independent voters, according to the poll.
Quinnipiac also shows Biden leading Trump 54 percent to 41 percent among likely voters in Pennsylvania. In September, Biden took 52 percent to Trump’s 44 percent. Most other post-debate polls have shown Biden with a seven- to eight-point lead in the state.
In Iowa, Biden has a smaller lead, with 50 percent of likely voters polled by Quinnipiac supporting him and 45 percent backing Trump.
But the headwinds in traditionally Republican enclaves on the political map have sparked concerns of a Democratic landslide.
On Wednesday, the Cook Political Report said the race between Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison is a “toss up,” following a recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed the contest tied.
In a sign of how Republicans are responding to the political turmoil, Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies, tweeted on Wednesday that he did not agree with Trump’s decision to stop negotiating with Pelosi until after the election.
“Strongly recommend all my colleagues and President Trump look at the House Problem-Solvers bipartisan $1.5 trillion stimulus relief package,” Graham wrote. “It has many good things for individuals and businesses.”
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that proposed a $1.5 trillion stimulus package, has called for a resumption in negotiations.
Beyond Graham, other Republicans voiced concern about Trump’s negotiating tactics and pleaded with him to find common ground with Democrats as many Americans suffer from job losses and economic anxiety.
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), a House member in a tough race, said he also disagreed with the president and would “strongly urge” Trump to rethink the decision.
And in Maine, Sen. Susan Collins (R) did the same as she fends off Democrat Sara Gideon in her reelection race.
“Waiting until after the election to reach an agreement on the next covid-19 relief package is a huge mistake,” Collins said in a statement.
Colby Itkowitz and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.