Republicans who have been counting on a roaring economy to power President Trump and GOP congressional candidates on Election Day are growing nervous because of the economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, GOP senators were riding high after Trump’s acquittal on impeachment charges in the Senate. Now they’re wrestling with predictions of an economic slowdown that could upend the political calculus for 2020.
“There’s a potential to really affect the economy, not only this country negatively, but throughout the world,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), adding that GOP colleagues discussed the potential fallout from the coronavirus at an all-day retreat in Washington on Wednesday.
“I think we’re in a position to do a good job of combating it. We just don’t know really what to expect as far as the full impact,” he added. “What I believe is we should be ready for the worst and essentially whatever money it takes, spend that to protect the American public.”
As a sign of the growing anxiety, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he is prepared to offer more than $4 billion in an emergency bill to fight the virus, significantly more than the $2.5 billion proposed by the Trump administration but less than half of the $8.5 billion requested by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Republican lawmakers say the strength of the economy along with national security are the biggest factors determining whether an incumbent president wins reelection.
GOP senators worry the strength of the U.S. economy, which a couple weeks ago had pointed in favor of Trump winning a second term, is now in doubt as the coronavirus cripples supply chains in China and sends economic tremors throughout the European Union.
“At the end of the day, elections — especially reelections for presidents — are largely based on the economy and people’s sense of security. And a virus like this can have an impact on both,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
Forecast firm Oxford Economics projects global growth will slow to 1.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020 as a result of the coronavirus. The firm has already lowered its forecast for the year from 2.5 percent to 2.3 percent.
Republican concerns are fueled by uncertainty over how quickly the virus may spread across the United States, and how a vaccine is not expected before November.
China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, has imposed quarantines and urged its citizens to avoid crowded places, resulting in eerie images of empty sidewalks, roads and subway cars in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that his government would ask all schools to close for March in an effort to contain the virus.
South Korean officials on Thursday reported to their American counterparts more than 503 new infections in the past 24 hours, according to a lawmaker briefed on the situation.
“When will it end? How much worse will it get? How will it disrupt supply chains, workforce? In a global economy, an issue like this is pretty dramatic,” said Cramer, while also striking a note of optimism.
“It’s not like the world hasn’t dealt with similar issues in the past and will no doubt deal with this one,” he said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who met with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday morning, said there’s no clear indication that the spread of the virus has peaked.
“I think it’s obvious if you’re seeing a downturn in supplies and products — in American companies that have facilities in China and who knows where else in the world — it could be a big detriment, I think, to any kind of growth,” she said.
“As we go into summer, you’re looking at things like tourism. That’s another thing I think could have a broad economic impact,” she added.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 plunged 4.4 percent each over the past few days, wiping out their gains for 2020.
Goldman Sachs sent a note to clients Thursday morning warning that the coronavirus could also wipe out corporate earnings growth for the year. Later that day, officials in California announced they were monitoring more than 8,400 people for infection.
Financial markets had clawed back some of their losses, but the news from California sent stocks into an afternoon tailspin.
Republicans say that if the situation gets worse, it could certainly have an impact on the economy and likely on the election as well, depending on how long it lasts.
“I wish the politics of it would disappear and people would really focus on what we’re doing,” Capito said, while acknowledging that “anything that impacts the economy is going to have an impact on the election because the president has really rebuilt our economy.”
During his first three years in office, Trump often boasted about the performance of the stock market. On Wednesday, Trump tried to blame the recent market decline on what he said were fears over the agendas put forth by Democratic presidential candidates instead of growing concern over the coronavirus.
“I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves, and they say, ‘If we ever have a president like this,’ and it’s always a possibility,” Trump said at a press conference at the White House.
The president warned that concern over liberal proposals such as “Medicare for All” and tuition-free college have “a huge effect.”
The Washington Post reported Wednesday morning that Trump had privately expressed his fury over the stock market’s slide and blamed CDC officials for spooking investors with their warnings about the likelihood of the virus spreading to the United States.
The White House moved Thursday to impose more message discipline over the administration by requiring health officials to coordinate public statements about the virus with Vice President Pence, who Trump tapped to lead the federal response, The New York Times reported.
Democratic leaders have pounced on the situation, arguing the administration was not adequately prepared.
“Despite months of public warnings about the danger of this disease, the president was caught completely flat-footed by the coronavirus,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor Thursday.
“And now, instead of quickly marshaling the resources of the federal government to respond to this health crisis, President Trump is intent on blaming everyone and everything instead of solving the problem,” he added.
Republican lawmakers on Thursday condemned Democrats, arguing they are trying to score political points from the crisis.
“Democratic leaders in this town seem to be cheering for a disaster,” said Cramer.
At the same time, though, Republicans acknowledged the very real threat to the economy and their own electoral prospects in November as a result of the coronavirus.