Pipe bombs threaten to derail GOP midterm messaging

A string of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats has thrown a late curveball into the midterm elections, putting the country on edge and providing plenty of political fodder for both parties.

Democrats are using the federal crimes as a new opening to criticize President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE and his fiery rhetoric, which they blame for the heated political climate that has turned violent.

The president, meanwhile, is pointing his finger at what he calls the “fake news” media, a familiar target that fires up the GOP base, while his supporters are rushing to his defense, saying Trump is the real victim in this situation.

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While it’s unclear how the explosive devices will impact the Nov. 6 election, some strategists say the drama has, at the very least, overshadowed other topics that the GOP is eager to talk about, namely the economy and a caravan of Central American migrants slowly headed toward the U.S. border.

“The economy grew at 3.5 percent, which is really great news for Republicans. But I wonder if anybody got through the pipe bomb news to see it,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “It takes away from what the GOP has been trying to do for months, which is focus this campaign on the economy. Because now everyone is focused on the violence and chaos.”

Other strategists, however, predicted that the issue would soon fade into the background given Friday’s arrest of a Florida man in connection with the mail bombs.

“I think by the weekend it will largely have faded from the public consciousness,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican strategist and partner at Rokk Solutions. “By next week, the media cycle will probably be taken over by another series of events that are unpredictable.”

The bomb scare has gripped the nation and dominated cable news since Wednesday, with explosive devices and suspicious packages discovered as recently as Friday, even after the suspect’s arrest.

Authorities have intercepted more than a dozen packages containing crudely built pipe bombs that were sent to CNN, high-profile Trump critics like Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersCDC director says he wasn't involved in decision to reroute COVID-19 hospitalization data Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute MORE (D-Calif.) and key Democrats such as former President Obama, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonState polling problematic — again 4 reasons why Trump can't be written off — yet 'Unmasking' Steele dossier source: Was confidentiality ever part of the deal? MORE and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

But despite Trump’s initial calls for unity on Wednesday, both sides were back in their partisan corners the next day pointing fingers.

The bomb scares come amid an already polarized electorate, with Democrats and Republicans demonizing each other while stoking fear and division for political gain.

Democrats were quick to remind voters of Trump’s contributions to the tense political climate, noting how he has praised a GOP congressman who body-slammed a reporter, repeatedly called journalists the “enemy of the people” and led “lock her up” chants, in reference to Clinton, at his campaign-style rallies. 

Trump was also slammed by Democrats who said he wasn’t acting presidential. While Trump initially pleaded for civility after the bombs were discovered, he eventually lashed out at the media, including a Friday tweet at 3 a.m. criticizing CNN.

“President Trump's words ring hollow until he reverses his statements that condone acts of violence,” House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP lawmaker: Democratic Party 'used to be more moderate' White House not optimistic on near-term stimulus deal Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMeadows: 'I'm not optimistic there will be a solution in the very near term' on coronavirus package Biden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program Senators press Postal Service over complaints of slow delivery MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement on Wednesday. "Time and time again, the President has condoned physical violence and divided Americans with his words and his actions.”

Some Democratic strategists predicted the bombs — and the ensuing reaction from Trump — could spook independents and moderates, who are expected to form crucial voting blocs in a number of key battleground races on Election Day.

“They wanted change, but not chaos,” Bannon said. “These are middle-class people living in fairly nice suburbs, they have fairly settled lives. They’re the kind of voters who get very nervous and anxious, and when people are anxious they vote against the party in power.”

While the suspected bomber’s motives are unknown, the fact that so many Democrats were targeted could undercut the GOP’s campaign message that a “liberal, angry mob” is coming for Trump’s presidency.

“It takes away from the Republican attacks on the Democratic mob,” Bannon said.

But other political experts said the Democratic criticisms of Trump for his handling of the situation could galvanize the president’s supporters and energize the GOP base, potentially increasing Republican voter turnout at the polls.

“It will feel like an overreach to voters who supported the president, and will continue to show what a base election this actually is,” Bonjean said.

A number of Trump’s top allies have come to his defense, arguing that Democrats and the media are unfairly blaming the president for the rash of explosive devices.

“It’s the media doing what the media does, which is any narrative that they can twist against Trump, they will do so,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (R-Texas) told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Some prominent conservatives have even been floating an unsubstantiated theory that the explosive devices were a hoax, a possible “false flag” operation initiated by Democrats to shift away from a political conversation that had been focused on immigration.

"Fake News–Fake Bombs," Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs wrote Thursday in a now-deleted tweet. "Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?"

Trump expressed frustration that the attempted bombings have blunted the GOP’s momentum heading into the midterms.

"Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this 'Bomb' stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows - news not talking politics,” Trump wrote in a Friday morning tweet. “Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!"

A few hours later, Trump complained that his new proposal to lower drug prices “didn’t get the kind of coverage it should have.”

"We're competing with this story that took place,” he said at a White House event. “Our law enforcement’s done such a good job, so maybe that can start to disappear rapidly.”