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GOP bets on Trump's handling of crisis in battle to keep Senate majority

Senate Republicans in difficult reelection races are aligning themselves with President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calculating that his stewardship of the country through the deadly crisis will help their reelection hopes even as he's been criticized for moving too slowly and as the American public remains sharply split over his response so far.

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Manu Raju
, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
CNN — Senate Republicans in difficult reelection races are aligning themselves with President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calculating that his stewardship of the country through the deadly crisis will help their reelection hopes even as he's been criticized for moving too slowly and as the American public remains sharply split over his response so far.

GOP senators and Democrats both believe that the November elections will be a referendum on Trump's handling of the pandemic and voters' views about the economy and whether it's able to rebound by the fall.

But unlike in past elections when senators in difficult races often distance themselves from an unpopular president of the same party, especially during a controversy, Republicans now are rallying behind Trump, a sign of his tight hold over the GOP and the belief within the party that their chances rise and fall largely on his performance at the polls.

"I think the President has actually handled it quite well, so I think it helps," Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said when asked how the President's leadership on the crisis could impact her race. "I think he took some really great initial steps and ... the left was just hammering him on that and it was the right thing to do. And so, I think the President has done quite well."

Most Republicans are loathe to criticize the President -- despite concerns over lack of widespread testing that persisted at a crucial time during the US response, his consistent downplaying of the severity of the virus or his penchant for dispensing medical advice that contradicts the views of his own public health advisers. Indeed, with a President who holds loyalty in the highest regard, few are willing to be on the receiving end of a Twitter tirade if they speak out against him.

Instead, Republicans see a president who acted decisively in January to seek to restrict travel from China in the face of criticism from Democrats. And they are rallying around a message of attacking China for the deadly outbreak, seeking to use that as a wedge issue in battleground states. The GOP needs to limit their losses to three seats to keep the Senate majority if Trump gets reelected.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said "people will go back and revise their positions" over Trump's handling of travel from China, arguing that concerns over a potential lack of ventilators were later alleviated and testing is "fast becoming an issue that we're getting ahead of." He said by September, people will look back and say they did a "pretty good job."

"If you add that the economy is at least showing some signs of improvement, I think you'll be just fine," Tillis said when asked about the impact of Trump's handling of the crisis on his race.

Tillis also defended Trump's shifting predictions of the death toll -- from late February when he said US cases would be "close to zero" within a couple days, to now with deaths above 90,000 -- as the President continually alters his estimates.

"Those are people nitpicking on smaller subjects that people are going to be looking at in totality," Tillis said. "It's no different than when you criticize a governor for saying (a storm) is going to make landfall here, but it was 100 miles up the road. ... As the President, you're trying to give people optimism, because that alone can help improve the situation. But we're learning a lot. We're revising things, and I don't criticize him or our governor for making changes in their estimates and their predictions."

Polls have consistently shown voters split over Trump's handling of the pandemic, with a clear majority -- 55% saying in a CNN poll released last week that they disapproved of his performance, up 3 points since April. That same poll, however, showed just 11% of Republicans disapproved of Trump's performance.

That dynamic continues to put Republicans from Democratic-leaning states in a bind, given that their base gives Trump high marks for his performance while majorities of independents and Democratic voters disapprove. Moreover, in 2016, the winner of every Senate race hailed from the same party as the victorious presidential candidate from that state. If that dynamic plays out in 2020, it could be hard for Republicans to break from Trump, particularly in swing states.

Indeed, most Republicans in difficult races are unwilling to criticize the President -- even when his comments have alarmed public health officials.

For instance, few GOP senators were critical of the President as he aggressively promoted the use of an unproven drug, hydroxychloroquine, which the Food and Drug Administration later said could cause serious side effects with little impact in curing Covid-19, or floated the injection of disinfectants as a treatment -- a comment rebuked by many public health experts.

Asked if Trump should be giving medical advice, Sen. Cory Gardner said: "I'm going to continue to work with the governor of Colorado and make sure Coloradans have what they need to get through this together, focusing on individual relief, focus on the economy, focusing on the health emergency, that's what I am 100% focused on."

Gardner, up for reelection in a swing state, pointed to his work with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis when asked if he believes Trump's done a good job in managing the crisis.

"There's going to be everybody asking that question," Gardner told CNN. "But what we have to do is do better and better every minute, and that's similar to what the governor of Colorado said yesterday."

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from the Democratic-leaning state of Maine, called Trump's handling of the crisis "very uneven," saying he took "appropriate" steps in restricting travel from China but said he "creates problems" when he "gears into giving medical advice."

That's the furthest most Republicans are willing to go.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't answer directly when asked how Trump's performance would impact control of the Senate.

"I've consistently felt, as you'll recall all along, that this is going to be a dog fight, a close race," McConnell, who is also up for reelection, told CNN last week. "I've said that last year, last month, I'm saying it now, we have a lot of exposure."

Indeed, the map is daunting for the GOP -- with 23 senators facing reelection, including in swing states that will be heavily contested in November. Republicans only have two pickup opportunities -- in Michigan and in Alabama.

"I don't think he's doing very well," said Sen. Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat, when asked about Trump's performance leading the US response. "And I think that the misinformation he's putting out is a real tragedy, so it remains to be seen" how it'll impact November.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been working aggressively behind the scenes to raise money and help his party retake the Senate, wouldn't answer directly when asked how Trump's performance could affect the overall race for the Senate.

"When you don't believe in truth, you can't solve the problem. And the President avoids truth in every way," Schumer said. "That's all I'm going to say."

But both sides do agree that the dynamics in November are unpredictable with the economy in a tailspin and uncertainty over how long the coronavirus will last.

"I think how we come out of this will be the dominant issue, and everybody's gonna be held accountable," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican who also faces voters in the fall. "And that's the way it should be."

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