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The Morning Dispatch: RIP GOP?
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The Morning Dispatch: RIP GOP?

Plus: Washington stalls on stimulus as long-term economic damage piles up.

Happy Wednesday! Quick reminder: Dispatch Live is back tonight after the vice presidential debate! Get all the details here, and we’ll “see” you in about 15 hours.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 42,663 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.2 percent of the 815,610 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 697 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 210,852.

  • In a series of tweets, President Trump instructed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to break off coronavirus relief package negotiations with Democrats, arguing that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “not negotiating in good faith.” Stocks tumbled following the tweets. “Immediately after I win,” Trump claimed, “we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.”

  • Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are quarantining after Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray—who attended several meetings at the Pentagon late last week—tested positive for COVID-19. Top White House aide Stephen Miller also tested positive for the virus yesterday and is quarantining.

  • The president’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, released a memo outlining his patient’s COVID-19 recovery, saying Trump “had a restful first night at home” and that “he reports no symptoms.”

  • The FDA on Tuesday released new, stricter standards that coronavirus vaccine developers must meet before applying for emergency authorization. The move all but ensures that a vaccine will not be approved before the election, leading President Trump to accuse his own FDA Commissioner of “another political hit job.”

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis extended Florida’s voter registration deadline by several hours on Tuesday after the state’s election website crashed Monday due to intense demand. A coalition of voting-rights groups is suing to extend the deadline by at least another two days.

  • Hurricane Delta—set to hit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula today—was upgraded to a Category 4 storm on Tuesday. It’s expected to move into the Gulf Coast and make landfall in Texas and Louisiana as a Category 3 storm late on Friday.

  • After a 16-month investigation into the business practices of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, Democratic House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee staffers released a report recommending comprehensive changes to antitrust laws to curb the alleged “monopoly power” of Big Tech.

  • The overall U.S. trade deficit topped $67 billion in August—its highest level in 14 years—the Department of Commerce reported yesterday.

  • Eddie Van Halen died on Tuesday at the age of 65. The leader of the Los Angeles hard-rock band Van Halen, he pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the electric guitar, popularizing the “tapping” technique and inspiring a generation of rock and metal guitar players.

Is the GOP Senate Majority Slipping Away?

Campaign strategists on both sides of the aisle awoke to a frenzy Tuesday morning: The latest CNN/SSRS poll—conducted from October 1 through October 4—showed Joe Biden with a 16-point national lead (!) over Donald Trump among likely voters, 57 percent to 41 percent. Biden led by 8 percent among registered voters in the same poll a month ago.

The fact that the CNN survey is likely an outlier is cold comfort to those working to elect Republicans up and down the ballot. One GOP strategist we talked to couldn’t help but laugh, noting that the optimistic approach is currently, “Well I’ll stipulate it’s not 17 [points], let’s just say it’s 10 to 12 [points].”

“Post debate, the bottom has been falling out,” he continued. “There is a marked difference in the president’s ballot performance between pre-debate and post-debate. I have not seen enough post-COVID polling to form a strong opinion yet, but the little that I have seen so far is across the board bad.”

Another consultant working on several GOP down-ballot races estimated Trump lost four or five percentage points nationwide in the last week alone. The president’s decision on Tuesday to break off coronavirus relief package negotiations and quadruple down on his COVID-is-no-worse-than-the-flu rhetoric is not inspiring confidence among party insiders that these numbers are turning around any time soon. And with politics as nationalized and polarized as it is, Trump could bring a lot of his fellow Republicans down with him if his collapse continues.

“The question isn’t whether the tide is going to continue to move against us,” the GOP strategist said of efforts to maintain control of the Senate. “The question is simply, how high is the water?”

As Andrew noted in The Sweep a few months back, Republicans were always slated to have a tough go this year due to their overexposure on the Senate map: GOP incumbents are defending 23 seats in 2020, compared to just 12 Democratic incumbents. If the Democrats can net four seats—or three, if Biden wins the White House—Mitch McConnell will lose his Majority Leader title come January 2021. Being shackled to a deeply unpopular president and facing historically bad right-track/wrong-track numbers (just 14 percent report being “satisfied” with the state of the country) further exacerbates Republicans’ structural disadvantage.

In past election cycles, down-ballot candidates of the same party were often able to distance themselves from an unpopular presidential nominee. Once the GOP came to terms with Bob Dole’s inevitable loss in 1996, for example, party organs began running ads explicitly promoting congressional Republicans as a check on President Clinton. Some Republicans echoed the strategy in 2016 with another aspiring President Clinton. Then Trump won.

“Everyone is stuck in the same boat with Trump,” one GOP strategist said. “There are a lot of people looking for life jackets, but it would be suicide to jump off now.” 

He did note, however, the impossible position many of these senators have been in for the past four years. “There are lots of things that members of Congress could have done to expand the political base,” he told The Dispatch. “But every single one of them would have triggered a primary election that you probably would have lost.”

New advertising data provided to The Dispatch from Smart Media Group demonstrate one aspect of the challenge. In the month leading up to the election, Democrats in key Senate races have a significant advantage in the value of advertising either booked or reserved—approximately $250 million to the $200 million reserved by Republicans.

But the more important figure excludes PAC money and focuses just on the small-dollar, grassroots fundraising done by the candidates themselves. “You’ll never run out of billionaires on either side willing to write massive checks,” one of the GOP strategists said. PAC money is “not a good barometer of what’s going on,” he continued. “A really good barometer is how much candidate money are people raising.”

“The Democrats have an absolute ATM machine right now with ActBlue,” another GOP consultant said, referring to the Democrats’ online fundraising platform. “They are outspending every single one of our candidates, with the possible exception of [multi-millionaire] Kelly Loeffler who can just write checks all day.”

One Republican ad maker argued that candidate-developed commercials are far more effective than super PAC ones. “All of these mindless negative ads that all look and sound the same, voters tune all of them out,” he said. “The most effective advertising is stuff that features real people. And usually that’s not what the super PACs and outside groups are doing, but it’s what the campaigns have the ability to do … They have access to their candidate.”

Mark Kelly has Martha McSally outflanked in TV advertising in Arizona over the next month nearly three to one. In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison leads Lindsey Graham nearly four to one. In Iowa, Theresa Greenfield is slated to outspend Joni Ernst six to one. The dollar figures in the Kansas race are far lower overall, but the Democrat-to-Republican ratio is more than 30 to one.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)—the committee working to elect Republicans to Congress’ upper chamber—remains officially upbeat. “The last few months have given Senate Republicans the ability to show voters that they are the most qualified candidates to lead our country by a mile, no matter the circumstances,” an NRSC source told The Dispatch. “This has been magnified as more and more Democrat Senate candidates come into the limelight—some for the first time—only to reveal to voters how untested and unprepared they are to lead.”

FiveThirtyEight’s Senate Election Forecast currently gives Democrats a two in three chance of securing a majority. And when given anonymity to speak candidly, many GOP strategists are similarly pessimistic. One gave Republicans a 30 to 40 percent chance of maintaining their majority “with the conditions as they are right now.” He thinks, however, that figure could tick up to 50 percent by election day if Democrats overplay their hands in the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings, North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham’s candidacy is tanked by recent reports of marital infidelity, or a Biden win looks more and more like a slam dunk. “There is a kind of inherent bias among voters to want to have divided government,” he said.

Another pegged the GOP’s odds at just 15 percent: “And I feel like I’m probably being generous.”

But as with all Trump-era prognostications, a degree of skepticism should be baked in. “We only know what is immediately in front of us, and even that we don’t fully know,” he said with either a sigh or a chuckle. “Who the f*** knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?”

The Great American Economic Recovery is Running Out of Steam

As noted above, President Trump on Tuesday instructed his administration—and by proxy, Senate Republicans—to suspend bipartisan coronavirus stimulus talks “until after the election,” claiming that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “not negotiating in good faith” and that her $2.4 trillion proposal would bail out “poorly run, high crime, Democrat States.”

It was a bizarre development four weeks before the election. Millions of Americans remain out of work, fiscal austerity has never been a priority of Trump’s, and the idea of additional coronavirus relief is remarkably popular. By a 72-to-23 percent margin, likely voters in a Sept. 27 New York Times/Siena College poll—including 57 percent of Republicans—supported a hypothetical $2 trillion stimulus package. Further, the economy remains one of Trump’s only bright spots in the eyes of voters.

The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report Trump’s tweets came after a conference call between Trump, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “McConnell suggested to Trump that Pelosi was stringing him along and no deal she cut with Mnuchin would command broad GOP support to pass in the Senate,” they wrote.

Several Republican senators, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, had balked in recent weeks at stimulus packages of various sizes; a bill large enough for Pelosi to accept would’ve surely had its fair share of detractors in the GOP conference. But some senators—Susan Collins and Rob Portman among them—criticized Trump’s walking away. “Waiting until after the election to reach an agreement on the next Covid-19 relief package is a huge mistake,” Collins said.

These sentiments align with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s comments during a virtual conference with private-sector economists on Tuesday. Powell warned of the “tragic” consequences that may arise from Congress’ failure to pass a timely coronavirus relief bill. “At this early stage, I would argue that the risks of policy intervention are still asymmetric,” Powell said. “Too little support would lead to a weak recovery, creating unnecessary hardship. … Even if policy actions ultimately prove to be greater than needed, they will not go to waste.”

Although the unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in September—down 0.5 percentage points from August and much lower than many projections made during the earlier stages of the pandemic—the pace of economic recovery is slowing as long-term unemployment soars and job losses become permanent. Long-term unemployment—referring to people out of work for 27 weeks or more—increased by 781,000 last month to a total of 2.4 million. Though temporary job loss fell last month, the number of permanent job losses rose 345,000 in September to a total of 3.8 million.

These recessionary trends are compounded by waning employer demand for new workers. “There is some suspicion that job growth for the month of October could be flat or negative,” said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration and partner at Hamilton Place Strategies.

New data also show that the financial pain brought on by this recession is not spread evenly among demographic groups. Black unemployment was 12.1 percent in September—down from its 16.8 percent pandemic peak in May—and Hispanic unemployment was 10.3 percent. September joblessness rates were much lower for white and Asian Americans (7 percent and 8.9 percent respectively). Women, too, have disproportionately suffered from pandemic-related unemployment, with many opting out of the labor force to care for children as a substitute for daycare or in-person classroom instruction.

The hospitality, restaurant, and airline industries are also facing long term structural damage. “Once you’ve got the low-hanging fruit back to work, there are just certain industries that are going to take a longer time,” said Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. After all, there is no sustainable business model for a restaurant that can operate for very long at 25 or 50 percent capacity. “As the weather gets colder, restaurants are going to lose that small bit of customer base that has been eating outdoors,” he said.

The unequal pain from the economic effects of COVID will be long-lasting, Fratto said, particularly considering certain slices of the economy are struggling more than others. “Back in March when we passed the CARES Act, the idea was to build a bridge to the other side of COVID,” Fratto told The Dispatch. “From my perspective, it looks like we’ve only built the bridge three quarters of the way across the divide.” 

The service sector will face long term barriers to recovery until we get the coronavirus under control. “You don’t fix the economy until you fix the virus,” Fratto said. “And we’re still some time away from that.”

Worth Your Time

  • Tim Alberta emptied the reporter notebook in his latest piece for Politico: “4 Funny Feelings About 2020.” Biden is leading Trump handily, he writes, but “election forecasts aren’t worth the paper (or web space) they’re printed on,” so it’s worth plotting out some potential scenarios. First, he predicts, Trump fatigue is setting in at a very bad time for the president. “It’s impossible to quantify how tired Americans are of this presidency,” he writes. “They feel trapped inside a reality TV show and are powerless to change the channel.” This, combined with a “silent majority” against Trump and the president’s dismal polling among women, may seal Biden’s victory. One caveat: Like Sarah, Alberta anticipates that Democrats will regret betting so big on absentee voting.

  • In a public letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood and 20 other signatories urge the panel to revoke the prize awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in “The 1619 Project.” Hannah-Jones’ installment—like the entire Project—rests on plain factual errors, forced interpretations, and dangerous generalizations, Wood argues. And since the country’s foremost historians and The New York Times’ own fact checkers have drawn attention to those errors, Hannah-Jones and the Times have outright refused to engage in criticism or scholarly discourse. “The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Wednesday’s edition of the French Press analyzes how a Justice Amy Coney Barrett might rule on the biggest issues awaiting the Supreme Court, from Roe v. Wade to gun control to religious liberty. “There is not a significant amount of jurisprudence … where she’s likely to cast the deciding vote to materially transform American law,” David writes. “At the same time, however, she does of course make it more difficult—through her sheer presence—for a hypothetical President Biden to move the court to the judicial left.”

  • This week’s Capitolism newsletter takes a look at the idea—popular on both the political left and right—that middle-class wages have stagnated. The real outlook for the middle class, Scott Lincicome argues, is actually much better than conventional wisdom would have you believe. Rather than stagnant income, the bigger problem is rising costs on expenses from health care to housing. “Trying to fix cost issues through income policies is like buying new pants after a year-long, Homer-In-Hell doughnut diet,” he writes. “I guess it ‘works’ for a time, but it doesn’t actually target the real problem and you’re just gonna be back at the pants store (just go with it) again next year.”

  • In his latest piece for the site, Jonah examines the possibility that President Trump’s COVID treatment has been dogged by “VIP Syndrome,” a phenomenon in which fabulously important people with big personalities can end up dominating the planning of their own medical treatment, sometimes to the detriment of their own health. “If you take a step back,” Jonah writes, “you could argue that not only Trump’s response to the pandemic but his whole presidency has been a case study in VIP syndrome.” 

Let Us Know

Who is your favorite current U.S. senator, and why?

P.S. We know the next four weeks are going to be very tense for everyone, and the country as a whole. But please don’t take it out on each other in the comments—which have been largely anger-free since we first launched. We’ve noticed a slight uptick in snippiness these past few days. Do your best to remember there’s a human being on the receiving end of your comment, and that human being is a fellow member of The Dispatch!

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.