WASHINGTON — As negotiations between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration on pandemic relief remain stalled, pressure is growing on nervous incumbents as they eye voter reactions to Washington's inability to strike a deal in the midst of a public health and economic crisis.
While it’s not clear who voters will blame if the standoff fails to produce more economic relief or drags on for weeks, the stakes in November's elections are clear, especially in the fight for control of the Senate.
Holding a slim 53-47 majority, Senate Republicans have eight incumbents at risk of losing their seats in November, compared to just one Democrat — Doug Jones of Alabama — considered vulnerable.
While Congress seeks to prove it can govern as the country reels from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, GOP infighting and a standoff between Democratic leaders and the White House threaten to stymie those efforts.
And the Senate challengers are not letting the opportunity pass them by.
In Maine, Republican Sen. Susan Collins is facing one of the most difficult races of her career. She has been advocating for, and helping to craft, another round of small business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. But the current impasse has created an opening for her challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who was quick to blame Collins for “Washington’s failures.”
“For months, Susan Collins and Senate Republicans have refused to do what’s right for the American people during a pandemic,” Gideon said in a statement to NBC News.
In South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison has attacked Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham as being an obstacle to relief. "Sen. Graham’s inaction — as this pandemic has raged on and the economic devastation has worsened — has made South Carolina’s working families and small businesses worse off,” Manuel Bonder, coordinated campaign spokesperson said.
It's a similar message echoed against Republican incumbents in Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, Montana and Texas.
The Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, the DSCC, is also weighing in on what they see as a problem for Republican incumbents, launching a microsite blaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for the lack of a deal.
“The millions of Americans facing hardship have Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to blame for refusing to extend the lifeline that helped keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Voters won’t forget how Senate Republicans turned their backs on those in need during this crisis and blocked unemployment relief,” DSCC Rapid Response Director Helen Kalla said.
While McConnell has largely sat on the sidelines of the negotiations, he has repeatedly insisted publicly that he supports another round of relief and has encouraged a deal, but he has now also embraced the president’s new executive orders meant to try to bypass Congress, blaming Democrats for inaction.
“I'd hoped the Senate would be spending this week turning a major agreement into law, but sadly for the country, sadly for struggling Americans, the speaker of the House and the senate Democratic leader decided we would not deliver any of that — none of it,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday.
The $2.2 trillion CARES Act was a boon to struggling GOP incumbents and one of the most popular pieces of legislation to pass Congress, according to two GOP campaign operatives who have seen internal party polling numbers.
In Maine, public polling shows that support for Collins increased after the CARES Act was implemented, bringing her within the margin of error in some polls.
But the lack of progress in a COVID-19 relief deal where the administration appears unwilling to budge beyond a $1 trillion price tag has put vulnerable Republicans in a difficult spot.
“The most significant thing Trump could to aid his re-election is to pump over $3 trillion into the economy of the next three months,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “The fact that we won’t do it when Democrats are ready to give it him is mind boggling.”
The president’s approval for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic continues to hover in the low 40s, with 42 percent strongly approving or somewhat approving according to the latest NBC News|Survey Monkey Weekly Tracking Poll released Tuesday. But only 32 percent of the coveted independent voter approves of the president’s response to the pandemic.
The president's standing offers another threat to GOP senators as Trump is currently trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in key battleground states that also have competitive Senate races, including Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, according to public polls.
Now, many Republicans who have previously shunned executive orders have mostly switched their tune in hopes that the president’s executive orders could give down-ballot Republicans a bit of a boost, allowing some cover to “play the role as centrist.
“If you are a Republican Senate candidate, you can point to the executive orders as something that has been done in the meantime and you can call for an agreement that’s reasonable — in between what Democrats and Republicans have demanded,” said one GOP strategist who was granted anonymity to speak freely about Senate races.
Collins, who blamed Democrats for blocking a short term extension of expanded unemployment benefits, said, “I hope the president’s actions will prompt Democratic leaders to negotiate seriously to reach a much-needed agreement to help struggling families, seniors, schools, businesses, municipalities & the USPS with this persistent pandemic.”
But Democrats are betting the executive orders backfire, too, calling them unconstitutional and ineffective.
“Republican Senators are going to have a really hard time defending Donald Trump’s bulls--- executive orders when their constituents are being evicted and struggling to pay their bills after he cut the unemployment benefits they were using to survive on,” Democratic strategist Jonathan Kott said. “The worst part for them is they have to defend it for three months. That’s a long time to look your constituents in the eyes and convince them these executive orders are helping them survive during a pandemic.”
In North Carolina, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, who is running against Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, is also highlighting “Washington’s failure,” noting that the president’s executive order will raid funds from FEMA’s hurricane fund to pay for a portion of the unemployment benefits. North Carolina was hit by Isaias last week and is at high risk during hurricane season. Cunningham blamed Tillis for letting jobless benefits “expire in the first place.”
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., convened a group of four Democrats and four Republicans over the weekend for shadow relief talks. He argues the issue goes far beyond politics.
“If this impasse continues and literally nothing happens, it will only breed more of disengagement, more anger, more divisions and even a further diminished lack of faith in our governance system, which is unhealthy for everybody — Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers,” Phillips said.