WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is running out of time to recover from a series of self-inflicted setbacks that have rattled his base of support and triggered alarm among Republicans who fear the White House is on the verge of being lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
The one-two punch of Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis and his widely panned debate performance also has Republicans worried they could lose control of the Senate. With just over three weeks until Election Day, Senate races in some reliably red states, including South Carolina and Kansas, are competitive, aided by a surge in Democratic fundraising that has put both the Republican Party and Trump’s own campaign at an unexpected financial disadvantage.
The president will aim for a reset this week, hoping an aggressive travel schedule and Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings will energize his most loyal supporters and shift attention away from a virus that has killed more than 214,000 Americans on his watch.
Optimists in the president’s inner circle point to his unique ability to command attention and to his 2016 campaign, which also seemed destined for defeat before a late shift. But that comeback was aided by outside forces against an unpopular opponent. This year’s campaign, other Republicans worry, may instead resemble 1980 or 2008: a close race until, at the end, it decidedly wasn’t.
“It’s not good for my side,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “Pretty obviously, in many ways down-ballot Republicans are in the boat with Donald Trump. That’s good for Republicans in deep red states, but more problematic for those in swing states.”
Asked for any bright spots for the Republican field, Ayres said, “I’m wracking my brain and just struggling.”
This account of Trump’s reelection effort was compiled from interviews with nearly two dozen White House and campaign officials and Republicans close to the West Wing, many of whom were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. It describes how a campaign that has generally been stable for months is enduring a series of historic jolts.
Republicans began sensing warning signs last month.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg animated conservatives but also electrified Democrats, driving a tsunami of cash toward Biden and down-ballot Democrats. Trump’s heavily derided debate performance only exacerbated the problem, as even his own supporters found him rude as he so frequently interrupted Biden.
Reviewing data afterward, campaign aides worried as they started to see Trump’s support begin to slip. The president’s coronavirus diagnosis only compounded the problem, particularly with older voters.
“It’s not good,” said Alex Conant, a senior campaign adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. "It’s been a long time since Donald Trump has had any good news, and when he does have good news, he manages to step on it.”
The Trump campaign insists the president can win reelection, saying his return to the road will excite his base while claiming that public polling has undercounted their supporters.
But national polls have shown Biden with a significant lead. And while the margins in the battleground states are smaller, Trump has faced stubborn deficits in most of the states that will decide the election.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Friday if that people are depressed and upset on Election Day, “I think we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress, that it could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions.” In the two national elections after Republican President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, Democrats significantly increased their congressional majorities and took back the White House.
Advisers privately concede that Trump, who has not moderated his tone on the virus after getting sick, has little chance of victory without Florida, which will be the site of his first post-diagnosis rally on Monday. And a loss in Arizona would require Trump to hold onto Pennsylvania.
“He’s in trouble, there’s no question. By every traditional measuring stick, this looks like a Biden landslide,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush. “It’s hard to predict what will happen in Congress, but anytime there is a large-scale victory, it has the potential to create tides to sweep people out.”
The fate of the Senate has increasingly weighed on Republicans, who see tough races in Maine, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina and even worries in deep-red Kansas and South Carolina. Some Trump backers are warning that GOP Senate candidates are now at an inflection point and some, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Martha McSally of Arizona, took small steps to distance themselves from the president in recent days.
Dan Eberhart, a prominent GOP donor and Trump supporter, said there is no doubt that Trump’s handling of the pandemic is eroding support for down-ballot Republicans and could lead to a Democratic sweep of government.
“I hope the polls have it wrong,” Eberhart said. “But Republicans ... need to develop a campaign strategy committed to protecting the Senate at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the Oval Office.”
One significant opportunity to potentially change the trajectory of the race is Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearings this week. Trump’s campaign believes the hearings could change the political narrative away from the virus and draw attention to Biden’s refusal to say whether he would expand the Supreme Court.
The Trump campaign believes the president’s return to the campaign trail will shift the story from COVID and says an economic closing argument — 56% of people in a Gallup poll this week said they were better off than four years ago, despite the pandemic — will be a winner.
“If we believe public media polls, then we would be talking about Hillary Clinton’s reelection right now,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director. “The choice in this campaign boils down to this: Who do you trust to restore the economy to greatness, the president who has done it once already and is already doing it again or Joe Biden and his 47-year record in Washington?”