Many GOP strategists fret Trump COVID-19 diagnosis dooms the party

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Republican strategists fear President Trump may not recover politically from his bout with the coronavirus, warning the brighter spotlight on the pandemic during the final month of the campaign would help Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden solidify his lead.

In interviews with more than a dozen Republican strategists, the consensus forecast for the Nov. 3 election turned overwhelmingly bleak after news broke that Trump and first lady Melania Trump contracted the coronavirus. Voter dissatisfaction with Trump’s management of the pandemic runs deep and has contributed significantly to Biden’s advantage in the race. With this development, Trump’s toughest issue is front and center as early and absentee voting accelerate.

“It’s a disaster for the president’s campaign,” a Republican operative said Friday. “He’s literally not going to be able to do anything but watch cable news all day and tweet.”

Some veteran Republican advisers overseeing House and Senate campaigns say the party faces a total wipeout down the ballot on Nov. 3.

“My prognosis is 32 days to live. We’re cooked,” a GOP strategist said. Another Republican insider who counsels GOP congressional candidates said: “Brace for impact.”

Biden led Trump by 6.8 percentage points in an average of recent national polls. The former vice president maintained smaller but steady leads in most key battleground states. Republicans were on edge following Trump’s uneven performance in his first debate with Biden Tuesday, worried that time and opportunities to overtake Biden are running out. The president’s coronavirus diagnosis is making them more pessimistic.

Trump testing positive for COVID-19 could suggest to voters the pandemic is a growing risk to their health, Republicans say. That dynamic is likely to push voters toward Biden, who regularly leads the president by double-digits in public surveys on the question of who would better handle the coronavirus. It also elevates voters’ latent concerns that Trump is not taking the pandemic seriously.

The danger of this narrative taking hold is magnified by the president’s mocking dismissal of Biden’s fastidious use of face masks and social distancing protocols at campaign events.

“I don’t wear a mask like him,” Trump said, pointing to Biden during the debate. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away … and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

Some Republican strategists were still assessing the impact of Trump’s situation on the campaign before offering a verdict.

One GOP operative speculated the 74-year-old president quickly bouncing back from the coronavirus could signal to people that the disease is not as dangerous as feared, thereby reducing how much the pandemic sways their votes. Another Republican wondered if it might help Trump by shifting attention away from the debate. Yet another was hopeful it might engender voter sympathy for the polarizing incumbent and monopolize news coverage, drowning out Biden’s message.

Some Republican insiders are hoping Trump’s exit from the trail will spark a rebound by shifting the focus of the campaign to Biden and away from the president’s crowded rallies and controversial rhetoric. Biden has a habit of uttering verbal miscues. The extra attention Biden receives as the only presidential candidate on the road might attract negative attention.

“It gives the president a good reason to be quiet and let the focus be on Mr. Biden, which is what has to happen if the president is going to win,” a former senior White House official said.

However, Republicans say the timing of Trump’s diagnosis could not be worse. The illness is forcing Trump to quarantine at the White House for up to two of the final four weeks of the campaign. He is canceling rallies in key states, such as Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin, depriving his campaign of its primary tool to juice voter turnout and dominate the message war with Biden in targeted markets.

“If there was a book to be written that was the opposite of catching a break … or making wise decisions, Trump’s writing it right now,” said a Republican strategist in Ohio, a toss-up state the president won easily four years ago. A second GOP operative in the Midwest added: “Gone are the rallies and aggressive campaigning in battleground states to make up for the president’s cash crunch.”

The Trump campaign confirmed Friday that future rallies or roundtables featuring Trump were being postponed or transitioned to virtual productions. Events headlined by members of the Trump family also were canceled indefinitely. Vice President Mike Pence, whose coronavirus test came back negative, was maintaining his aggressive travel schedule. Other Trump campaign surrogates are stumping for the president on a case-by-case basis.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Katherine Doyle contributed to this report.

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