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Senate candidates focus closing arguments on health care, experience

Senate candidates focus closing arguments on health care, experience
© Greg Nash

Senate candidates are rolling out their closing ads of the 2020 campaign, with Democrats honing in on health care and Republicans promoting their own political profiles.

With highly competitive races in nearly a dozen states, senators and their challengers from both parties are touting their achievements, incorporating a positive message as Americans grapple with a pandemic — and largely avoiding mentions of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE.

“The story that’s not been written is that Democrats have said for years that Trump was going to be their ace in Senate campaigns, and they have not chosen to close by attacking Republican incumbents on Trump anywhere,” said GOP ad-maker Brad Todd, who has worked on ads for Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocrats see Georgia as model for success across South McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 MORE (R-N.C.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Colo.), and Michigan Senate candidate John James.

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The final batch of ads is drawing attention to a cash gap between the parties, with Democratic candidates generally releasing two to three closing ads, while their Republican counterparts have tended to roll out one to two this cycle.

“The good news about these ads is that we will have a very expanded electorate,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “There will be more voters in the pool.”

“These ads are going to reach people who have little to no voting history or maybe people who sat out elections before, traditionally those voters may not vote early,” Seawright added.

Democrats appear on track to gain seats and possible take the majority in the upper chamber. The party has honed in on a number of vulnerable incumbents, including in states long seen as Republican strongholds such as Texas and South Carolina.

In the Palmetto State, Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison’s campaign against Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation MORE (R) recruited South Carolina-born actress Viola Davis to narrate a 60 second spot dubbed “Inspire.”

“Something’s happening in South Carolina,” Davis says to images of people putting up Harrison signs. “Hope that things can get better. Faith that we can elect new leaders who put country before party.”

James also enlisted the services of a state celebrity, recruiting Michigan native and actor Tim Allen to narrate his closing ad released Thursday.

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The 30 second spot titled “Together,” features shots of Michigan’s scenic landscapes, resembling one of Allen’s “Pure Michigan” tourism ads.

While some campaigns have yet to release their final closing messages, a number did so weeks ago in states including North Carolina.

“Well over half the votes are already cast,” said Todd, referring to the Tar Heel State. “You have to put your closing argument up two weeks out, you can’t wait until the last.”

The Senate campaign in North Carolina was rocked weeks ago by reports of Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham’s extramarital affair, giving Tillis and Republicans new material for ads late in the contest. Cunningham has led Tillis in most polling, but a recent New York Times-Siena College poll shows the Democrat up 3 points over the incumbent, while a Reuters Ipsos poll released this week shows Cunningham leading by one point.

Tillis's closing ad, titled “Code,” highlights the affair and includes narration from veterans condemning Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Reserve, for his actions.

“Veterans know we can’t trust Cal Cunningham,” says one veteran in the ad. “And North Carolina can’t trust Cal Cunningham in the Senate.”

Cunningham has touted his military service multiple times throughout his campaign, including his decision to enlist after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

He does so again in ad addressing the coronavirus pandemic, called “Run.”

“We’re being tested as a country, but Cal Cunningham has always run to the fight,” a narrator says in the spot.

Another ad titled “Battle Back,” addresses the need to build a stronger economy. The ads, which are set to run through Election Day, do not mention Tillis.

Colorado voters have been casting their ballots early by mail in October, meaning candidates in those races have rolled out their closing ads earlier as well.

Former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperSenate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes Democrats frustrated, GOP jubilant in Senate fight Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night MORE (D) talked about his mission to "fundamentally change Washington" in his closing ad titled "Optimist," which was released on Thursday. 

"I believe we can find solutions to our biggest problems. Lowering the cost of health care, confronting climate change, rebuilding the economy, finally getting past this pandemic. But we have to stop the political games and remember what matters: helping people," Hickenlooper says in the 30-second spot. 

Gardner is one of the most vulnerable incumbent Republican senators. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Democratic.”

The incumbent’s campaign juxtaposed clips of Gardner with old footage from a 1962 speech that former President John F. Kennedy gave in Pueblo, Colo., in which he called for funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“It took 50 years to get it done, and it took Cory Gardner,” the narrator says in the ad titled “Next Generation.”

Todd said the ads depict Gardner as a “historically good senator bringing policy wins back for the state.”

However, Hickenlooper's campaign has tied Gardner to Trump in ads, hitting the senator for standing with Trump "100 percent" of the time in an ad released in October titled "No Waver."  

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE (Ariz.) is also seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbent Republicans. Cook rates her race against Democrat Mark KellyMark KellyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Arizona county's Republican committee debates censuring Cindy McCain MORE as “lean Democratic.”

McSally’s campaign released two closing ads, both honing in on economic issues, claiming Kelly will raise taxes on working families.

“We need to help small businesses get back on their feet, cut taxes, and bring our jobs home from China,” she says in one of the ads. “Mark Kelly has a different plan. He’ll raise taxes on every mom stretching her family’s budget, and on every small business already struggling.”

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Kelly’s closing ads take on a more personalized tone, with one featuring his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). The ad shows Kelly and Giffords spending time together in their home.

“Marriage is a commitment to stand with your partner in sickness and in health,” says Giffords, who survived 2011 assassination attempt. “He has helped me through my darkest moments,” she later adds.

There is a question of how much campaigns' closing commercials will matter in the last few days leading up to the election, but strategists from both sides of the aisle agree that closing ads and messaging can play a role in turning the tide at the last minute for voters.

“There are people who are not typically that interested in politics, but they feel obligated to vote, so they begin to pay attention to politics at the very last minute before they have to vote,” Todd said. “They look for some cues and some guidance.”

Seawright said there is even a chance in the final stretch for voters to have second thoughts.

“There is a chance that their hearts can be changed,” he said. “I believe that if you can change somebody’s heart, you can get the mind to follow.”