NRSC chairman says incumbents have political advantage in pandemic

Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young said senators focusing on their official responsibilities now "will be beneficial come November"

Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young is the NRSC chairman.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young is the NRSC chairman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 7, 2020 at 4:09pm

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who chairs Senate Republicans' campaign arm, said Thursday that GOP incumbents could have a political advantage as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Several GOP senators are facing competitive reelection races in November as Republicans try to hold onto their Senate majority. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman said the senators could see a boost at the ballot box by focusing on what they're doing in Congress to respond to the crisis.

"Naturally our candidates have pivoted aggressively towards their official responsibilities. And I think that will be beneficial come November," Young told reporters at the Capitol.

Eleven of the 13 Senate races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as competitive involve seats held by Republicans. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to flip the chamber, or three seats if they win the White House, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes.

GOP senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona, have already started to highlight their response to the pandemic in television ads. Collins and McSally are among the most vulnerable senators in 2020.

Some Democrats have countered by criticizing the aid package. After McConnell touted the response in a recent television ad as proof that he leads with "a steady hand," his potential Democratic opponent, Marine veteran Amy McGrath, countered with her own ad that suggested "special interests" and large corporations benefitted from the legislation.

Young said the $2 trillion package Congress approved in March remains popular with voters. The measure sent direct payments to households and expanded unemployment benefits and aid to states, hospitals and businesses.

"This could be quite beneficial towards our incumbents, and their efforts to send a message that they're here for their constituents when they need them most," Young said. "So, in that sense, I think there's a real upside politically to the current situation, as much as we all lament it."

Last week, the Washington Post reported that NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin told GOP donors he was concerned Republican senators were not getting enough credit for responding to the crisis.

Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, mocked that attitude.

“Senate Republicans are privately whining they've gotten 'insufficient credit' for their coronavirus response and, just like pushing a giant corporate slush fund with no strings attached or shortchanging aid for hospitals, it's another example of how out of touch they are,” Boss said.

Young questioned any suggestion senators would be punished for the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

"I don't think anyone blames Washington for this," Young said. "I don't think anyone certainly is going to blame the United States senator for a pandemic."

Although Senate incumbents may be able to leverage their response to the pandemic in their reelection races, Democrats believe their challengers are well-positioned for victory in November. A slew of Democratic candidates outraised GOP incumbents in the first fundraising quarter of 2020, a sign of Democratic enthusiasm.

One Democratic strategist involved in Senate races recently noted that Republican senators are linked to President Donald Trump's response to the pandemic.

"For these Republican incumbents, this is much more of liability more than anything else because they’ve defended and praised Trump’s response to this crisis," the strategist said.

In some Senate races, Republican incumbents are being challenged by Democratic state officials, who could benefit because overall, approval ratings for governors have risen while Trump's were unchanged or fell. In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is challenging GOP Sen. Steve Daines. And in Maine, House Speaker Sara Gideon is taking on Collins.

"It's a good time to be a governor," Young acknowledged, "but Steve Daines is going to win come November."

Still, if Young is correct and the pandemic favors incumbents in Congress that does not bode well for Republicans' chances to retake control of the House. Democrats flipped the chamber in 2018 with campaigns that focused heavily on health care, and plan to continue to push the issue this year as Trump and several GOP attorneys general try to convince the Supreme Court to throw out the 2010 health insurance overhaul.

“The 2018 midterms showed voters don’t like incumbents who use their office to take away health care," Robyn Patterson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in response to Young's comments.

"Now more than ever, voters are worried about the health of their loved ones," Patterson said. "They won’t reward politicians for making it harder for their families to see a doctor or get necessary care during a deadly pandemic.”

There was no response to a request for comment from the National Republican Congressional Committee.