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How will the COVID-19 crisis affect federal and Minnesota elections this fall?

If this were a “normal” election, Trump and Republican senators and House members should get clobbered in November. This isn’t a normal election.

photo of a single voting booth
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

For the president and governors, their response to the coronavirus will be the key factor in the 2020 election. There are two questions, however: 1) Will the response be judged by how good a job was done protecting the public from the disease, or by getting the economy moving? And 2) will the federal courts continue to help Republicans by disenfranchising non-Republican voters?

As to the economy vs. safety: Republicans in Minnesota, one of only 10 states election prognosticators see as in doubt, have signaled they’re going to take the economy tack. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis led the way on March 25 when he challenged DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order. The position from the former congressman and right-wing talk show host was not a surprise, but Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka shocked many Capitol observers April 5 when he criticized the governor for not lifting stay-at-home directives, allowing more people to go back to work.

Gazelka had allowed the nation’s only politically split Legislature to complete a relatively productive 2019 session amicably, despite calls from his right to cause something close to a government breakdown. There was hope among some that Gazelka’s Senate could be expected to provide support for what health experts agree is the only safe course, social distancing. Gazelka’s tweet came just minutes before the governor, in his daily coronavirus report, made it clear that Minnesota had the best record among the states in “flattening the curve,” i.e. lowering the number of cases projected to occur at the worst moment, making it possible for the state to have ready enough ICU beds, ventilators, etc.

As one DFL activist said angrily after learning of Gazelka’s comments: “We can revive the economy; we can’t revive the dead.”

If that spirit continues during the next six months, Republicans will have trouble. Choosing dollars over family members is so un-Minnesotan. If Minnesota comes to November better off economically than most other states — as it typically is — and better off on low coronavirus infections and deaths, Republicans will have a very tough job. So Democrats should win the 2020 election in Minnesota, no matter what the courts do.

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Nationally, President Donald Trump has done an abysmal job on the virus. As part of his “eliminate all vestiges of Obama” policy, his administration reorganized the Obama-founded White House pandemic unit out of any power and influence. That unit, with proximity to the Oval Office and a president who was willing to listen, could have saved thousands of lives and helped us avoid having our front line medical workers taking their lives in their hands because they don’t have proper protection.

Wy Spano
Wy Spano
Despite his colossal ineptitude, Trump got a slight polling bump as the virus wore on. Naturally, for him, he seemed to think his growing approval was the result of his embarrassment-inducing daily press briefings, not the normal “support the president in time of crisis” response. (Tellingly, George W. Bush went from 60% to 92% approval after 9-11. Trump’s high mark is 45.8% so far during the corona crisis). Apparently, members of the Trump administration are trying to stop the bleeding that his politicizing of a national crisis is causing. But getting this president to take real responsibility is usually a lost cause, so change might come slowly.

If this were a “normal” election, Trump and Republican senators and House members should get clobbered in November. This isn’t a normal election.

Last Tuesday, voters in Wisconsin who hadn’t successfully sent in absentee ballots and still wanted to vote took great personal risk by going to the polls. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling helped that to happen, demonstrating that the Republican majority on the court is now, indeed, a partisan, Republican majority. The decision made it clear that the courts are willing to play ball with any voter suppression scheme that makes it to them (as, indeed, they mostly have since John Roberts became chief justice and they eviscerated the protections of the Voting Rights Act.) With the court’s partisan goal in place, innovative solutions to the question of how to have a fair election in the time of coronavirus are near to impossible.

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With the courts on their side, Republicans do have a good chance to overcome Trump’s botched job. In Democrats’ favor, Trump has no ability to accept criticism of what he’s doing, so his constant 9-year-old snits will continue.

Who wins? In Minnesota, Democrats without much question. Governor Walz’s incredibly well done job will help legislators.

Who wins nationally? Let’s cross our fingers and say Democrats, but not by much. The Supreme Court will help to prevent the votes of hundreds of thousands, even millions of voters, most of whom would have voted Democratic. But I’m guessing that Trump’s performance is so bad he’ll still manage to lose a rigged election. Even Fox News can’t gild that lily.

Wy Spano has been involved in Minnesota political life for over 40 years, as a newsletter editor, commentator, lobbyist, grad school teacher, and citizen activist.

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