Republicans are privately fearing the worst possible outcome in November, one that could leave them without the White House or a majority in either chamber of Congress next year.
House Republicans face numerous, almost insurmountable obstacles: a cash shortfall against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 27 retiring lawmakers and a Republican National Committee that is more focused on reelecting President Trump and protecting the Senate GOP majority. They also need to pick up a net 17 seats to win back the House.
While Republicans noted the political landscape appears to change by the day, some are expressing a growing sense of doom.
“If the election were today, we would lose the House, the Senate and the White House,” said one Republican source.
Several GOP lawmakers are warning that the party faces a landslide defeat on Election Day if Trump doesn’t start landing punches on former Vice President Joe Biden, who has a strong lead in the polls both nationally and in key battleground states.
“This is the problem: [Trump] continues to allow it to be a referendum on himself; you can’t do that in a competitive race,” one GOP lawmaker said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was less pessimistic, predicted that Trump will gain momentum with more focus on Biden’s policy goals.
“The sooner the campaign is contrasted with what Biden wants to do,” the faster the race “is going to tighten,” McCarthy told The Hill in an interview.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) added: “There’s never been a clearer contrast in terms of a president who has successfully rebuilt the economy. And then COVID happened and now we need to rebuild the economy again — there’s nobody better to do that than Donald Trump.”
Republicans are hoping that when Trump has the opportunity to debate Biden in person, then their fortunes will change.
“President Trump has always done very well in debates,” McCarthy said. “They are underestimating him.”
But Trump’s unarticulated vision for a potential second term has made it difficult for GOP candidates to tell voters what they would be getting if they side with Republicans. And many voters don’t like what they’ve already seen, particularly when it comes to the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus.
Some GOP lawmakers who spoke to The Hill acknowledged that the president has failed to inject much-needed urgency into his pandemic response even as U.S. infection numbers approach 5 million, with nearly 160,000 dead.
“People are looking for reassurance … Chaos worked great in 2016, [but] they don’t want it in 2020,” said one GOP lawmaker. “They want to know that we’re trusting science and doctors on the questions here and they want to know we’re going to get through it. There needs to be more FDR fireside chats and less Jerry Springer knockdowns.”
Trump’s rhetoric has alienated a key voting bloc that Republicans have sought to attract: suburban women. The president’s recent attack on Deborah Birx, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, did not help that effort.
“Conservative women want to see empathy and compassion and don’t like meanness. We are doing really poorly with married, white women,” a GOP source said. “I do not at all understand the Deborah Birx attack at all — not politically and not morally.”
Republicans who are trying to court those voters also face a funding challenge. The campaign arm for House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, held a $33 million advantage over the National Republican Congressional Committee at the end of June, making it harder for GOP candidates to get their message out to voters.
Some Republicans also see Trump pushing away elderly voters with his persistent attacks on mail-in voting. His supporters say that could hurt him in the long run since seniors, who generally skew Republican, are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and are more likely to vote by mail.
On Tuesday, the president reversed his stance on mail-in voting, specifically in the battleground state of Florida, where he encouraged voters to cast their ballots by mail.
Still, Republican candidates worry they’ll be weighed down on other issues where Trump is seen as out of step with the general public.
With race relations at the forefront of the national discussion following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody, Trump’s response to the subsequent protests has been an area of concern for Republicans.
Republicans groaned when Trump refused, in an interview with Axios, to acknowledge the legacy of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Instead, the president remarked on how the Georgia congressman skipped his inauguration.
“It’s all about COVID and race [relations], and that’s all just personality and managing it. [Trump’s] got to show compassion and he’ll be all right. That’s the challenge — all those are changeable,” said one GOP lawmaker.
Three sources voiced optimism that a coronavirus vaccine could be approved as early as October, which they said could be Trump’s “October surprise” and give him a boost in the polls.
Some Republican lawmakers maintain that Trump is not as far behind as the polls claim, just like in 2016; rather, they feel the headlines over the next few weeks will soon describe the Trump campaign as making a comeback.
Even those who expressed doubt about the president winning in November argue there is a hidden percentage of Trump voters who are not being reflected in the polls.
“I think it’s significant,” said one House GOP lawmaker. “You have 1.8 million Trump voters nationwide who didn’t come out in the midterms who are going to be out this cycle.”
To many, however, one need look no farther than Capitol Hill to see that the election is not looking good for the GOP.
A Republican source pointed to the fiery clash in the House late last month between Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and a group of conservative lawmakers as proof of that.
“The best evidence we are in trouble for 2020 is the jockeying for 2020 that is already going on,” the source said.
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