GOP faces reckoning over Trump's virus strategy, diagnosis

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Photo credit Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., meets with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Washington. (Bill Clark/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis on Friday was a moment of reckoning for his Republican Party, whose leaders largely adopted his strategy of downplaying the disease but are now confronted with a stark political nightmare weeks from Election Day.

The president’s infection thrust the pandemic front and center at a time when Republicans would rather be talking about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, law enforcement or the economy as early voting is underway in most states. They include Iowa and North Carolina, states that Republicans must win to maintain their three-vote edge in the Senate.

As Trump headed to Walter Reed military hospital for quarantine, the virus seemed to spill into every corner of the party. Tests came back positive for Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel and for Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. One vulnerable incumbent, North Carolina's Thom Tillis, announced Friday night that he had also tested positive for the virus and that he would quarantine for 10 days at the peak of election season.

The pandemic even spread to a subject the GOP hoped to be its safe harbor in the campaign's closing weeks — the looming confirmation of Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Videos of an unmasked Lee mingling with other conservative luminaries at a White House ceremony for Barrett ran relentlessly on cable news, turning the party's push to reshape the court into a story about the spread of a deadly virus. The infections of Lee and Tillis, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, call into question whether Republicans can meet their aggressive timeline of confirming Barrett before Election Day.

“It’s challenging," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster active in five competitive Senate races. "It would be better if the discussion was about jobs and the economy, or even Joe Biden is going to be held captive to the left. But the election is going to be about coronavirus, and that’s not favorable terrain for Republicans.”

In private conversations over recent months, Republicans had reached a level of stoicism about how their fates were yoked to the president’s, even as he ricocheted from outrage to outrage and denied the severity of a pandemic killing thousands of their constituents. Their inability to escape Trump is due partly to their embrace of his personality and agenda, but also to a reality of the nation's polarized politics — legislators increasingly rise or fall with their party's presidential candidate.

“People vote for the uniform, red or blue,” Bolger said. “As the president goes, so goes a lot of down-ticket Republicans.”

That's required Republican legislators in competitive states to walk what GOP pollster Whit Ayres called “a fine line” — putting enough distance between themselves and Trump to pick off swing voters without alienating the president's loyal base who will punish any Republican who disagrees with him.

Candidates have tried different tactics. In Colorado and Montana, Sen. Cory Gardner and Sen. Steve Daines have touted a big conservation bill they sponsored. In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins has emphasized her history of relative independence from party leadership. In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst has tried to avoid discussing Trump's more erratic tweets and statements.

The reemergence of the pandemic puts Trump back where he has been most of his four years in office: at center stage. But it may also remind voters of health care and the GOP's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the centerpiece of the Democrats' election messaging.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a GOP case seeking to overturn the health care law shortly after the election. Earlier this week, six Republicans, including Collins, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan and Gardner, joined Democrats in a procedural vote to try to protect it, a sign of how vulnerable the senators feel on the issue.

The political peril of the looming court case was evident Friday night at the first debate in the Colorado Senate race. Gardner's Democratic challenger, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, relentlessly attacked the incumbent Republican about his repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and the dangers of Barrett invalidating the law once she's approved.

“Are we really, in the middle of a pandemic, going to strip away health care and protections for people with preexisting conditions?” Hickenlooper said, noting Gardner supported Trump's push to repeal the law in 2017.