In a stunning admission, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he had stopped going to the White House two months ago because he disagreed with its coronavirus protocols. His last visit was Aug. 6.
“My impression was their approach to how to handle this was different from mine and what I insisted we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing,” McConnell said at a campaign stop in northern Kentucky for his own reelection.
Lax White House safety protocols have been pointed to as a likely factor in an outbreak in the West Wing over the last two weeks. A White House Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26 is widely suspected to be a coronavirus “superspreader” event. At least eight attendees have since tested positive, including President Donald Trump himself.
Republicans running for re-election must now navigate the politicized issue of coronavirus safety in their final appeals to voters. For the most part, GOP leadership has acquiesced to the president’s messaging on mask use and the threat of COVID-19. But that strategy is becoming increasingly politically perilous.
In key races from Arizona to Texas, Kansas and Maine, Republican senators long afraid of the president’s power to strike back at his critics are starting to break with the president — particularly over his handling of the pandemic — in the final stretch of the election.
GOP strategists say the distancing reflects a startling erosion of support over a brutal 10-day stretch for Trump, starting with his seething debate performance — when he did not clearly denounce a white supremacist group — through his hospitalization with COVID-19 and attempts to downplay the virus’s danger.
Even the somewhat subtle moves away from Trump are notable. For years, Republican lawmakers have been loath to criticize the president — and have gone to great lengths to dodge questions — fearful of angering Trump supporters they need to win. But with control of the Senate in the balance, GOP lawmakers appear to be shifting quickly to do what’s necessary to save their seats.
“The Senate map is looking exceedingly grim,” said one major GOP donor, Dan Eberhart.
Republican prospects for holding its 53-47 majority have been darkening for months. But recent upheaval at the White House has accelerated the trend, according to conversations with a half-dozen GOP strategists and campaign advisers, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations.
The strategists noted the decision to rush to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett has not swung voters toward the GOP as hoped. Several noted internal polls suggested Republican-leaning, undecided voters were particularly turned off by the president’s debate performance and his conduct since being diagnosed with the coronavirus.
It wasn’t clear whether these voters would cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.