Campaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis

Campaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis

A volley of political advertisements attacking the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic has some strategists worried that going negative at a time of crisis will backfire.

Most of the ads have so far come from Democrats and have been sharply critical of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE’s delayed response to the outbreak.

Priorities USA, the top Democratic super PAC, began running such an ad campaign in a handful of critical battleground states last week. Another liberal outside group, Pacronym, launched a digital ad campaign last month targeting Trump over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.


But there are also signs that Republicans are preparing to fire shots across the aisle. In a conference call this week, the Trump campaign's communications director, Tim Murtaugh, urged the president’s surrogates to cast Democrats, including former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE, as “the opposition” in Trump’s efforts to combat the pandemic, according to NBC News.

Still, there’s a looming sense among some strategists that politicking in the face of dual crises — the coronavirus pandemic itself and the resulting economic fallout — could backfire.

“Every aspect of campaigning is harder to do now,” Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist, said in an interview in March. “And if this situation progresses in a way that we really look like Italy, and some of the charts on this are starting to really reflect that, then it becomes harder to do anything politically without a real backlash.”

Candidates down-ballot are also being targeted. The Democratic super PAC Middle Class Fighting to Restore Arizona’s Unity and Decency launched a new ad on Saturday hammering Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump nominee's long road to Fed may be dead end McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol McSally's final floor speech: 'I gave it my all, and I left it all on the field' MORE (R-Ariz.), one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Senate, over past comments about the coronavirus outbreak.

Some lawmakers have taken a different tack around the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Two more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Maine), for instance, rolled out a 30-second spot thanking grocers, pharmacists, doctors, nurses and others who have continued their work throughout the outbreak, calling them “the real heroes of the coronavirus crisis.”

With most Americans under stay-at-home orders and glued to their televisions, smartphones and computers, the coronavirus ensures advisers something of a captive audience.


Mark Longabaugh, a media consultant who advised Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersClub for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout Inequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift In defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism MORE’s (I) 2016 presidential bid and former tech executive Andrew YangAndrew YangGroups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Media and Hollywood should stop their marching-to-Georgia talk Andrew Yang: Democrats need to adopt message that government is 'working for them' MORE’s 2020 campaign, said that some advertisers are naturally taking advantage of high ratings to push their messages.

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of political issues that need to be addressed, he said.

“One, we have a tremendous health crisis and then the resulting economic crisis,” Longabaugh said. “What are your priorities and your actions in the midst of that? I think that those issues are legitimate.”

Still, there’s a fine line between raising “legit criticism” of political rivals and “falling over that line into a smear,” he said.

“We’ve held elections and advertised in the midst of a crisis before,” Longabaugh said. “We had a fall campaign in the midst of an economic collapse in 2008. The candidates still advertised. The candidates still critiqued each other. It raises the bar.”

“You just have to be more sensitive in these kinds of environments,” he added. “But I don’t think that eliminates political discussion.”

Democrats argue that attacking Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is fair game in energizing their base and swaying swing voters and moderate Republicans.

“We need to be defining Trump,” said Kelly Dietrich, the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which has been training down-ballot campaigns on how to handle the pandemic.

“Forty-two percent of America is always going to believe that Donald Trump is the supreme genius, and our beloved leader for them,” he continued. “That’s not who we’re talking to. We're talking to moderate Republicans, suburban women, African American women, college-educated men and women. We’re talking to swing demographics.”

Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that has put out an ad attacking Trump's response to the coronavirus, said the president needed to be held accountable.

"President Trump is putting out misinformation on a daily basis and trying to rewrite history at his press briefings," a Priorities USA spokesman told The Hill. "His early inaction has caused irreparable harm to this country and that cannot be forgotten. It is imperative that we hold our elected officials accountable and we will continue to do so with Trump. The Trump campaign may not like that we are airing the president's own words but the American people have a right to know that Trump was downplaying the virus even as the infection spread across the country."

But multiple GOP operatives took aim at going negative and fundraising off of the pandemic, arguing campaigns need to be cognizant of the atmosphere.

“There's definitely been some restraint in campaigns trying to politicize this because there’s a lot of risk there," one GOP strategist told The Hill, citing the example of Rep. Haley StevensHaley Maria StevensDemocrat Haley Stevens hangs on to Michigan House seat Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night US Chamber of Commerce set to endorse 23 House freshman Democrats MORE (D-Mich.), who faces an ethics complaint from a conservative watchdog group for using an image of her floor speech for a fundraising pitch, in violation of House rules. Stevens's campaign team said it would "make sure to prevent any similar oversights in the future."

"You can’t stand on the House floor and say, ‘Oh hey, look how much I care about my constituents in this crisis … by the way, give me money for my campaign’ without coming off as insincere,’” the GOP strategist said. “I think people at home are interested in getting through this, getting help and getting their businesses back on foot — if you are using this for attacks, you don't seem compassionate, you seem opportunistic and I think that can be a real problem for a campaign.”

Democrats also say they plan on homing in on health care, an issue that was a winning issue for the party in 2018 when they took back the House.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ran a 25-second advertisement in the beginning of March targeting the affordability of a potential coronavirus vaccine.

The ad centered on Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s previous comments on vaccine affordability, in which he said “we can’t control that price because we need the private sector.”

“The Trump administration would rather pad the pockets of drug manufacturers than provide access to an affordable coronavirus vaccine,” the text of the spot reads.

Versions of the ad ran in districts for Reps. Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), who switched from a Democrat to a Republican amid last year’s House impeachment process, as well as Republicans Ross SpanoVincent (Ross) Ross SpanoGOP keeps control of Florida House seat held by Rep. Ross Spano 10 bellwether House races to watch on election night The Hill's Morning Report - Jill Biden urges country to embrace her husband MORE (Fla.), Vern BuchananVernon Gale BuchananMORE (Fla.), Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler wins reelection Mild weather could boost voter turnout on Election Day MORE (Wash.), David SchweikertDavid SchweikertHouse GOP proposed rules change sparks concern Next Congress expected to have record diversity Embattled Schweikert beats back Democratic challenge in Arizona MORE (Ariz.), Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerDemocrats projected to retain House majority Live updates: Democrats seek to extend House advantage Democrats seek wave to bolster House majority MORE (Mo.) and Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungTrump administration denies permit for controversial Pebble Mine Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview MORE (Alaska).

“Washington Republicans have spent the last 10 years waging war on the health and the wallets of millions of Americans and voting to gut programs that help combat pandemics,” DCCC spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said in a statement to The Hill. “They aren’t going to stop these attacks on people’s health care unless they think it’s going to cost them their jobs.”