‘Make-or-break’: U.S. coronavirus response evolves into 2020 campaign issue

Coronavirus is already coloring the 2020 campaign, with Democrats convinced U.S. 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 favoured 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.

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