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 Trump’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 Biden, 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 McSally (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 Collins (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 Sanders’s (I) 2016 presidential bid and former tech executive Andrew Yang’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 Stevens (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 Spano (Fla.), Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), David Schweikert (Ariz.), Ann Wagner (Mo.) and Don Young (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.”