Show caption The White House lit up in red, white, and blue following Donald Trump’s Fourth of July ‘Salute to America’ event in Washington. Photograph: REX/ShutterstockUS elections 2020
As the devastation of the pandemic spreads across the country, states long considered to be reliably Republican appear increasingly up for grabs
Just two months ago, Donald Trump was warning against “bailouts” for Democratic-run states that were grappling with the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.'We've got to do something': Republican rebels come together to take on Trump
“It’s not fair to the Republicans because all the states that need help – they’re run by Democrats in every case,” the US president said at the time, as hard-hit states such as New York and California sought federal financial relief from the impact of the virus.
Two months later, the US map of new coronavirus outbreaks looks entirely different. States that reopened quickly, as the president advised, are now seeing a surge in cases and a rising hospitalizations and that is impacting the Republican heartland. States that Trump won in 2016 account for about 75% of the new cases, according to the Associated Press.
A few of those are key swing states that Trump will almost certainly need to win again to secure a second term. And as the devastation of the pandemic spreads across the country, other states long considered to be reliably Republican also appear increasingly up for grabs.
Recent polls have shown Trump trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in battleground states like Florida and Arizona. A set of Fox News polls taken late last month also found Trump and Biden virtually tied in Texas and Georgia, two states that have long been considered Republican strongholds. All four states have reported record-high levels of new coronavirus cases in the past two weeks.
Trump has dismissed his disappointing polling numbers as “fake”, but his re-election campaign is clearly aware of the president’s growing unpopularity as he avoids confronting the latest surge in new cases. The Trump campaign placed its first television ads in Georgia late last month, and several voter registration events were held in Texas over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
“The pandemic really has clarified and highlighted both Republican failures in leadership and the need for so many of the different policy reforms that Democrats have been fighting for for years,” said Royce Brooks, the executive director of Annie’s List, which works to elect progressive women in the state, adding: “Texas is certainly up for grabs.”
Most election experts say Trump still has the advantage in Texas, which he won by nine points in 2016, but his sinking popularity could help down-ballot Democrats secure historic victories in the state. “We may or may not see Texas deliver a statewide win for the Democratic Senate candidate or for the presidential race, but we are absolutely on track to flip the statehouse to Democratic control in November,” Royce said.
The situation is even worse for down-ballot Republicans in traditional swing states like Florida, where Trump has been losing ground to Biden. A Fox News poll taken late last month showed Biden leading by nine points in Florida, up from a three-point advantage in April.
“We can tell from our polling and we can tell just anecdotally that independents are being turned off, so that is a growing concern,” said Alex Patton, a Republican strategist based in Gainesville, Florida. “Down-ballot, people are suffering a lot.”
Those hurdles could have profound implications for the US Senate, as Democrats fight to regain control of the chamber. Texas, Georgia and Arizona are all holding Senate races this fall, and Trump’s controversial comments about the coronavirus pandemic have put Republican senators in difficult positions as they prepare for their November elections.
Republican senator Martha McSally was already facing trouble in Arizona, where Democratic candidate Mark Kelly has been consistently leading in the polls. McSally has declined to distance herself from Trump, even as evidence suggests his numbers are sinking in the state. An Arizona poll taken last month showed Biden ahead by seven points, even though Democrats have only won the state once since 1952.
However, the 2018 midterms showed Arizona was an increasingly difficult state for Republicans, as suburban and Latinx voters increasingly drifted toward Democrats. McSally, who was appointed to her current Senate seat, narrowly lost her 2018 Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Now, as Arizona sees a rising number of coronavirus infections, Democrats believe the state’s residents are ready for a change on the presidential level.
“Arizona’s been in a long-term trend, especially over the last decade, away from the GOP,” said Democratic strategist DJ Quinlan. “But I think Covid and a number of other things have only made that happen faster.”
Chip Scutari, a political consultant based in Phoenix, Arizona, noted any incumbent president would face challenges in trying to win a second term amid a global pandemic that has caused severe financial distress. “[Voters] don’t pay attention to a lot of the policy battles, but they are paying attention when someone in their family gets sick or their dad loses a job,” Scutari said. “This has transcended partisan politics, in my opinion.” He added, “I think the battleground states have to be shifting toward a blue wave at this moment.”
Despite his complaints of “fake polls”, Trump appears to be somewhat aware of the precarious position he is in. The president has already started to claim the election will be “rigged” by voter fraud because of efforts to expand voting by mail, even though voter fraud is actually very rare. Trump’s baseless claims have been read as an attempt to delegitimize the election in case he loses.
“Republicans know they’re in trouble. They knew it even before the pandemic,” Brooks of Annie’s List said. “That’s why they insist on engaging in voter suppression tactics here.”
Late last month, the supreme court rejected Texas Democrats’ request to expand voting by mail to all voters in the state, leaving in place strict regulations on mail-in ballots. But Brooks said she is confident Texans will still turn out to vote in November.
“This is certainly not the first time in our history when people have been forced to choose between their safety and their right to vote,” Brooks said. “And time and time again, we have seen people choose to vote.”