OK, so my subject line is a bit of a gag.
It’s the Democrats, of course, who tend to be the anxious political fliers, the kind who grip the armrests, order a vodka cranberry and still start blaming each other at the first sign of turbulence. “Democrats in Disarray” is the headline cliché for us political journalists.
But right now, it’s the Republicans who seem to be discombobulated.
“The president’s political environment is terrible,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative who now advises a super PAC supporting President Trump. “It’s an uphill battle.”
When I asked whether Mr. Trump could turn around his chances with just three weeks left before Election Day, Mr. Rollins was blunt: “It’s cooked.”
In private, Republicans offer an even more dire assessment of the president’s chances, rattling off a litany of recent missteps, including his erratic debate performance, his failure to protect himself or much of his White House from the coronavirus and his inability to drive a closing message. Many fear a Trump-driven catastrophe up and down the ticket, one that could cost Republicans control of the Senate and further shrink their ranks in the House.
They’re right to be worried: National polling averages show Mr. Trump trailing Joe Biden by 10 or more percentage points, with consistent deficits in battleground states. The president has lost key parts of his 2016 coalition — suburbanites, older voters, white women — and has been unable to woo them back with warnings about violent protests, anarchy and socialism.
Democrats are raising record sums of campaign cash, like the eye-popping $57 million collected by Jaime Harrison, the Democrat challenging Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — numbers that demonstrate the force of their energized and mobilized base.
Most of the major political forecasters now say that the Democrats are at least slight favorites to take control of the Senate. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report estimates that House Democrats could expand their majority by as many as 15 seats.
Those predictions, together with some internal tracking numbers from Republican Senate candidates who saw their chances in competitive races tanking after the first debate, are leading some Republican candidates to put the tiniest sliver of daylight between themselves and Mr. Trump.
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The most glaring example in recent days came from Senator Martha McSally, the endangered Arizona incumbent, who refused to say whether she was proud of her support for Mr. Trump at a debate last week.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, facing a closer-than-expected re-election race, told The Houston Chronicle that the president “let his guard down” on the coronavirus, while Senator Ted Cruz, his fellow Texan, warned that the election “could be a blood bath of Watergate proportions.” (Viewer note: Keep an eye on Texas on election night.)
Even Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced that he hadn’t visited the White House since August, concerned about the lack of virus safety protocols there — a rather pointed observation for the Senate majority leader to make about his own party.
This is not a totally surprising turn of events: Down-ballot candidates often try to separate themselves from an incumbent president. In 2014, some Democrats in tough re-election fights refused to campaign with President Barack Obama, part of an effort to localize their races — a decision some Obama aides still criticize as the wrong strategy.
But Republicans are not overtly distancing themselves from a polarizing president. They signal their differences with gentle criticism, or let it slip in a debate-night flub. After four years, they know that a sharp pivot away from Mr. Trump would invite the scariest thing of all: A presidential tweetstorm, aimed directly at them.
So instead, Republicans are left where they’ve been since the 2016 election, fluttering around the light of their mercurial president and trying — rather carefully — not to get burned.
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Dispatch from Georgia: The battle for suburban women
ATLANTA — A big pink bus made its way through the suburbs north of Atlanta last week, emblazoned on one side with a large photo of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. On the other side was a slogan: “She Prays She Votes.”
The bus was part of a multistate voter education campaign sponsored by a conservative women’s group. There was a time when navigating such a billboard-on-wheels through Cobb County might have amounted to preaching to the choir. But these days, the Atlanta suburbs are one of the most hotly contested political spots on the map of the South, thanks to demographic change and a distaste for President Trump — especially among women.
Democrats will be watching these suburbs closely on Nov. 3. If Joe Biden is to notch an upset in Georgia, he will need strong support among highly educated women in places like Cobb County, along with statewide minority turnout to rival the years when Barack Obama was on the ticket.
Mr. Trump carried Georgia by five percentage points in 2016, but Cobb County, as well as suburban Gwinnett County, another former Republican stronghold to the east, shocked the state’s political establishment by voting for Hillary Clinton.
Four years later, the courting of women voters by both major parties is more intense than ever in places like the suburban Sixth Congressional District, which covers parts of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb Counties. There, women furious with Mr. Trump provided a big lift to Jon Ossoff, a Democratic congressional candidate, in a 2017 special election that garnered national attention and millions of dollars in donations from far beyond Georgia.
Mr. Ossoff lost the 2017 race, but a fellow Democrat, Lucy McBath, won the Sixth District a year later. This year, Mr. Ossoff is running for a Senate seat, and Ms. McBath is locked in a tight race against the Republican she unseated, Karen Handel.
The McBath-Handel rematch is playing out largely on television, with ads reflecting the broader messages of the presidential race. The pro-Handel forces echo Mr. Trump’s assertion that a vote for Democrats will mean crime and mayhem for the suburbs.
One ad, from the National Republican Congressional Committee, features a white woman with a ponytail jogging through the woods. “We moved here for peace of mind, safety,” says a female narrator, who goes on to assert that crime has gotten “out of control” and that Ms. McBath voted to release violent criminals from prison. (An apparent reference to a multifaceted coronavirus relief bill passed by the House of Representatives that would, among other things, release some federal inmates susceptible to Covid-19.)
An ad released by Ms. McBath’s campaign is even more blunt. It asserts that Ms. Handel “enables” Mr. Trump, and features video footage of Ms. Handel on a stage, bragging, “I have one of the strongest Trump support ratings of any member in Congress, at 98 percent.”
The 30-second ad also shows Ms. Handel and the president on a stage exchanging quick, friendly cheek kisses. Later, the moment of the kiss is shown in a freeze-frame — apparently in case anyone missed the point the first time around.
This item was part of a series of short Battleground Dispatches our reporters have been filing from swing states, offering an in-person snapshot of what it’s like to be on the ground in Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. You can read all of the dispatches here.
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