By Elise Viebeck - 10/15/14 06:00 AM EDT
Ebola has become the October surprise of this year’s midterm elections, with Democrats and Republicans doing battle over everything from restrictions on travel to the disposal of a victim’s remains.
The U.S. public is increasingly fearful of the virus following three cases in Texas and news that the fatality rate for infected patients has hit 70 percent in West Africa.
The issue is particularly fraught for Democrats, given signs that President Obama’s dragging poll numbers could help Republicans take control of the Senate. Though Ebola is unlikely to move the needle in specific races, political strategists say it adds to the darkening public mood.
“The situation with Ebola and what’s going on in Syria and Iraq — all of this is creating a high level of anxiety among voters and a sense of uncertainty about the future,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.
Both parties are seizing on the Ebola crisis to reinforce broader political themes.
Democrats are pinning blame on the GOP, arguing the party has hobbled the response by supporting budget cuts to public health agencies that anticipate and respond to epidemics.
Republicans, in turn, are raising questions about the administration’s preparedness and pushing Obama to impose tougher restrictions on air travel from the three West African countries that are at the center of the outbreak: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The Obama administration argues suspending travel would do more harm than good, but Republicans are pressing the case amid polls that show a strong majority supports the idea.
Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsSenate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Congress set for Saudi showdown with Obama GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE (R-Kan.), who is locked in a tight reelection battle that could determine Senate control, on Tuesday became the latest Republican to criticize Obama directly.
“The cases of Ebola in the United States came to our shores on a plane from Liberia. West Africa is the source of this potential pandemic, and we should fight this virus there, at its source, not on our borders or in our airports,” Roberts said.
The third-term senator assailed Obama’s approach to foreign policy, a major campaign theme for Republicans this election cycle.
“I call on the president to actually lead on this issue, take emergency action and protect American lives before we have an epidemic here at home,” Roberts said. “We cannot afford to be reactive or ‘lead from behind’ with a deadly and easily spread threat like Ebola.”
Polls suggest that people in the United States are paying attention to the Ebola debate. Two-thirds of those surveyed backed a flight ban in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday, and nearly the same number said they are concerned about a U.S. epidemic.
Strategists said part of the problem for Democrats is that Ebola is drowning out their main campaign messages, particularly on the improving economy.
Thornell said Democrats should hit Republicans harder by making the argument that budget cuts have hampered the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Republicans should have to defend their positions on health matters going back years,” he said. “Those issues are fair game.”
The attacks on the GOP reached a higher decibel this week when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a new ad campaign accused Republicans of supporting “dangerous” budget cuts.
A liberal advocacy group went even further, releasing a controversial ad that juxtaposed Republicans calling for budget cuts with dead bodies.
The Republican National Committee blasted the ad and doubled down while criticizing the CDC for spending resources on what it said are less urgent priorities.
Some GOP lawmakers have argued that Obama health officials are not giving the public a complete picture of the Ebola threat.
“I understand people in government not wanting to create panic, and I don’t want to create panic, either. But I think it’s also a mistake, on the other side of the coin, to underplay the risk of this,” Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSaudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Senators challenge status quo on Saudi arms sales Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him MORE (R-Ky.) told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week.
The White House defended its assessment Tuesday, saying the risk to Americans from Ebola remains “exceedingly low” and that the U.S. medical system can handle the virus, despite the infection of a nurse in Dallas.
“I think that reflects, you know, a prompt response from this administration to dealing with this threat,” said spokesman Josh Earnest. “But again, I’ll leave it to all of you to assess what sort of impact that will have on an election that’s still three or four weeks away.”
Read more from The Hill: