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Trump is leaving the hospital. GOP candidates are still stuck in a box.

Analysis: Republican House and Senate candidates can no longer credibly claim that the risks of the coronavirus have been overblown.
Image: James Comey testifies before Senate Judiciary Committee
At a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst apologized to health care workers for having expressed doubt about the veracity of Covid-19 death statistics.Stefani Reynolds / Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's personal battle with the coronavirus has made it much harder for his Republican allies in tough House and Senate races to play down the public health risk of the pandemic.

Trump proclaimed Monday that getting the coronavirus had improved his health.

"Don't be afraid of Covid," he tweeted as he announced he would be leaving the hospital. "Don't let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!"

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But for the 210,000 dead in the United States, most of the millions who have lost their businesses or jobs because of the coronavirus, and many parents trying to keep their kids wired into distance learning, the disease has been the dominant force in their lives.

And a Trump tweet isn't going to change widespread awareness that the most heavily protected person in America not only contracted the disease, but also had to be taken to the hospital and supplied with exotic drugs and supplemental oxygen to treat it.

"Downplaying or denying the severity of the coronavirus is no longer an option," longtime conservative strategist Rick Tyler said. "The best congressional Republican candidates can do now is to try to convince voters that divided government is the only way to stop a rollout of liberal policies, starting with a Supreme Court expansion by the Democrats if they control both the White House and the Congress."

Before Trump was diagnosed with the virus, many Republican incumbents followed his lead in accusing Democrats and the news media of exaggerating the threat. Since then, most of them have been silent about the grave nature of the disease, while three senators are contending with the fallout of their own positive tests and a fourth is backtracking on past statements.

At a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday night, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst apologized to health care workers for having expressed doubt about the veracity of Covid-19 death statistics.

"I am so sorry that my words may have offended you," she said. "I know that you are tremendous workers. You are essential workers. You are providing care for our loved ones every single day."

Ernst, once such a favorite for re-election that the state's most prominent Democrats chose not to run, is now trailing challenger Theresa Greenfield by several points in most recent polls.

In addition to Trump, several of his aides and Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah have revealed positive test results in recent days.

It follows that if the president, his White House aides and three members of the Senate can get the virus at the same time, so can anyone else who doesn't follow safety protocols.

Democrats say all of that has put more focus on the president's coronavirus policies for the rest of the country. He has long trailed Democratic challenger Joe Biden in polling on the question of who would better handle the federal response, and Democrats say that will hurt Republicans in House and Senate races.

"The longer the national conversation is focused on how reckless Trump and Republicans in Congress have been in dealing with the coronavirus, the worse it is for Republicans at every level of the ballot," said Josh Schwerin, a senior strategist for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.

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Schwerin pointed to Democratic Senate challenger Jaime Harrison's use of a plexiglass barrier to separate himself from Sen. Lindsey Graham in a South Carolina debate Saturday as a physical representation of the argument against Republicans who have backed Trump's approach.

"He was not only taking a necessary step to keep himself safe — he was highlighting that Republicans have put every American at greater risk of getting sick," Schwerin said. "This pandemic affects every part of American life, and Democrats at all levels of the ballot will continue to hold Republicans accountable for their failures."

Graham, who is running behind the president in his own state, made no effort to distance himself from Trump's message.

"The virus is going to pass," Graham said, but "what kind of country are you going to have" if Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress?

Republican consultant Matt Gorman, a vice president at the firm Targeted Victory, suggested that there is a silver lining for GOP candidates in the focus on Trump's health rather than on his political pronouncements: It means they aren't operating completely in the shadow of his domination of political discussions.

"While the presidential race is essentially frozen, those down-ballot races are not, and candidates can't confuse the two," Gorman said. "You need to still do everything you can and use the time to make an unfiltered pitch to voters."

That would be easier for Tillis if he hadn't tested positive after meeting with Trump when the president officially unveiled his latest Supreme Court nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Over the weekend, Tillis' Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, apologized for sexually suggestive messages he sent to a woman who isn't his wife. Normally, that would be an unmitigated boon for Tillis. But questions about the senator's ability to participate in hearings and a confirmation vote for Barrett are competing for attention in the state, along with reports about the progress of Trump's recovery.

Veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye said it's difficult for local stories to break through because national news about Trump dominates media in the state.

"This blocks it out even more, and this is one perfect example," Heye said of Tillis' diagnosis, which connects easily to Trump's health and the broader coronavirus narrative. "It's a separate story that plays into that larger story."

One incumbent was frank about the political risks inherent in the president's approach. “I think he let his guard down, and I think in his desire to try to demonstrate that we are somehow coming out of this and that the danger is not still with us — I think he got out over his skis and frankly, I think it’s a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is up for re-election this year, told the Houston Chronicle on Monday.

“He tries to balance that with saying, ‘Well you know, we got this.’ And clearly we don’t have this."