WASHINGTON, D.C. – Coronavirus is already coloring the 2020 campaign, with Democrats convinced President Donald Trump's response to the outbreak leaves him and down-ballot Republicans vulnerable over the burgeoning health crisis, his competency and — potentially most damaging — the staggering economy.
Republicans are fighting back by accusing Democrats of politicizing the fight against the virus and COVID-19, the sometimes deadly disease it causes. But mostly, a nervous GOP is hoping administration actions will reverse the stock market's nosedive, avert a recession and control the coronavirus in just a few months.
That could allow time to prevent the problems from becoming Trump's Hurricane Katrina and defining November's election battles for the White House and Congress. President George W. Bush was harshly criticized for his administration's belated handling of the deadly 2005 storm, which battered New Orleans, damaged his presidency and contributed to the GOP's loss of House control the following year.
“The economy has been his whole schtick," said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who once headed the House GOP's campaign committee. “If the market tanks and the economy goes down, I think Trump's whole reason for being in office goes away."
Added Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster: “The way you respond to crises can be make-or-break moments for elected officials."
People in both parties say a recession and rampant disease outbreak would cripple Trump's reelection and Republican efforts to capture House control and defend their Senate majority. That's an edge Democrats are primed to exploit.
“Every elected @GOP official owns this moment,” Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., tweeted this past week after Trump delivered a prime-time national address that erroneously described several steps he's taking to try containing the virus. “They elected him. They coddled him. They cowered before him.”
Democrats' first ads on the theme have only started trickling out. Yet they point to GOP soft spots Democrats detect and the emotional appeals they'll make.
Before quitting the Democratic presidential race this month, Mike Bloomberg ran two ads that implicitly challenged Trump's ability to manage the crisis by citing Bloomberg's efforts as New York City mayor right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Trust is essential," Bloomberg said.
The Democratic-backed group Protect Our Care began airing a spot this week in Montana asserting that the state's GOP senator, Steve Daines, “doesn't worry" about families' health concerns including coronavirus. It depicts a concerned mom hovering over her daughter, who lies bedridden in a hospital.
Daines, who faces a competitive reelection race this November, has favored repealing former President Barack Obama's health care law, though there's no proof that Daines is unconcerned about coronavirus. Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the Senate GOP's campaign committee, said Democrats are running “disgusting attack ads that politicize a disease that knows no party.”
Short of campaign ads, both sides have used press releases and emails to dual over the virus.
Christy Smith, a Democrat battling for an open House seat from Los Angeles, emailed supporters accusing Republicans of “legislative malpractice” for blocking a Democratic bill addressing the problem.
And an email from the Great America PAC, a group that supports Trump, says while Trump has been “working around the clock to keep Americans safe and healthy," he's been blamed by “the Left and Fake News media” for the outbreak.
Such emails are often used to generate lists of potential voters, volunteers and donors. Trump has repeatedly referred to criticisms of his administration's coronavirus performance as a “hoax."
Republicans say there is still time for Trump to tame the coronavirus and the economy and consign them to background noise before Election Day.
“If we do this right, in the mid-summer the economy and stocks will come roaring back,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio.
A quick turnabout will be crucial for Trump, whose presidency has featured frequent high-profile clashes that often drown each other out. That includes his House impeachment and his acquittal just five weeks ago by the Senate, which have already been overshadowed by the latest crisis.
Above all issues, a feeble economy can spell an incumbent president's downfall, and things currently look grim. Plummeting financial markets, withering 401(k) accounts, growing layoffs, slowed consumer spending and travel and the shutdown of sports leagues and entertainment venues are hardly the stuff that lures voters.
Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency Friday, saying that would provide $50 billion to state and local governments for the outbreak. The Dow Jones average rose over 1,900 points Friday but was still in bear market territory, down over 20 percent from its all-time high last month.
Trump is also poised to sign a House-passed coronavirus relief package.
But in an example of his tendency to downplay the virus and his defensiveness about the administration's slow-footed reaction to it, he said, “I don't take responsibility at all" for the plodding roll-out of testing in the U.S.
That left the wounded economy and the virus irresistible targets for Democrats, who are tying them to criticism of Trump as incompetent.
“You wouldn't have had a massive fluctuation in the stock market this week if he wasn't really disturbing the confidence of investors,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a former Democratic Party chairwoman. She said Trump's “fly by the seat of his pants, cover his own tuchus approach does not inspire confidence.”
“President Trump has taken kind of malicious pride in asserting that he alone can make things happen,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "And he's run into his match with a coronavirus that simply doesn't respond to his tweets and insults.”
Democratic presidential candidates have struck similar themes.
Joe Biden said “a pervasive lack of trust in this president” had hindered the response to the virus, compounded by Trump's leaving the country “woefully unprepared.” The former vice president's chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said the administration's “incompetence and recklessness have threatened the lives of many, many people.”
Still, Republicans are watching to see if Democrats overstep.
The risk for Democrats is if they “look like they are cheering for a worsening of a very serious situation,” said Ayres, the GOP pollster.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Sean Casten represents Illinois, not Wisconsin.