Senate Republicans facing tough reelection fights this November aren’t echoing President Donald Trump’s dark warnings about crime-infested cities and violent mobs wreaking havoc across the country. In fact, they’re barely mentioning that topic ― or Trump ― at all.
In key races that may decide who controls the upper chamber next year, GOP incumbents in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Iowa, and North Carolina are instead playing up key coronavirus relief measures Congress passed into law earlier this year. In light-hearted, positive television ads, these Republicans also are emphasizing mask-wearing and social distancing to stem the pandemic, as well as popular issues like preserving the environment, lowering prescription drug costs, and insurance protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions.
The messaging effectively portrays an alternate world where Trump and his incendiary Twitter account barely exists, the administration’s response to the pandemic has been largely successful, and the more than 185,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 don’t get mentioned.
It’s all part of the extremely difficult balancing act for Republicans who spent three years lashing themselves to a polarizing president out of fear of alienating his most fervent supporters, thus undercutting their own political prospects. They must now attempt to at least appear independent as they seek support among Trump-weary voters and face a crop of new Democratic challengers who have raised massive sums of money looking to kick them out of office.
“It’s important, especially in this environment, for candidates to give independent and undecided voters ― there are less of them than at this point in 2016, but they still exist ― a rationale for giving them another six years” in the Senate, said Doug Heye, a former Republican Party spokesman. “You can’t do that with [plays to the GOP base] like the culture wars alone. That’s where it’s important to show that you can get the big things done.”
Trump’s campaign may believe that his reelection chances are best served by warning about crime and pressing for “law and order, but evidence has emerged that voters have other concerns on their minds. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 8% of American adults listed crime as a top priority for the country, compared with 30% who named the economy or jobs, and 16% who said it was the health care system.
In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, a big Democratic target, has aired several TV and radio ads touting her role co-authoring the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave thousands of small businesses forgivable loans if they kept their employees on salary during coronavirus lockdowns. While the program did save many jobs, it has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent the wave of permanent business closures across the country, especially in low-income and minority communities.
Collins, who seeks a fifth term and has been touring her state on a campaign bus in recent weeks while rigorously adhering to mask-wearing protocols, declined to say if she will be endorsing Trump when asked about it on Monday.
Insisting she’s focused on her own race, she said at a stop in Bangor, “I am not getting involved in the presidential race. ... But I will tell you this, that regardless of who is elected president, I will work with that person to advance causes that are important to our state,”
Another of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans, Cory Gardner of Colorado, has portrayed himself as a champion of public lands and parks following the passage of a major law earlier this year that will fully fund a decades-old federal program that acquires and protects federal recreation holdings. (The program had broad bipartisan support and conservatives stymied its funding in previous years, but nevermind that.)
Gardner, who won his seat in 2014, has featured images of himself speaking at the White House ceremony for the bill’s signing and has run ads touting his efforts working “across party lines to get the tough job done.”
Gardner, who has endorsed a second term for Trump reelection after opposing his election in the final days of the 2016 campaign, is one of the most at-risk senators in the 2020 cycle. Colorado leans blue, and Democrats have won the presidential election there the past three cycles.
Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona might face the biggest dilemma of all GOP senators on the ballot this year. One the one hand, she needs to appease Trump supporters who saw her as insufficiently embracing Trump when she lost the 2018 race for an open Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Just after that vote, McSally was appointed to the state’s other Senate seat that Republican John McCain had held before his death. As she now seeks election to fill out the last two years of McCain’s term, she must also appeal to GOP voters who appreciated his maverick politics, as well as Trump-weary independents.
McSally’s ads have placed a heavy focus on health care, including a bill she proposed aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs and curbing price gouging.
She also stresses her support for maintaining the pre-existing conditions insurance protections. But this is a particularly brazen claim for which she’s been hammered. As a House member in 2017, she voted for her party’s bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would have wiped out the regulations that block insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. (In a closed-door meeting on the day of that vote, McSally reportedly stood up and told colleagues that it was time to get this “f**king thing” done.)
A new Fox News poll released found Democrat Mark Kelly, who has a massive cash advantage over the incumbent, leading McSally, 56% to 39%.
In Iowa, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst faces an unexpectedly competitive race in her bid for a second term. The Hawkeye State trended Republican in 2016, with Trump carrying the state by eight percentage points. But the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s bungled response to it has put Ernst’s seat back in play.
Ernst’s TV messaging has touted her Senate work calling for increased access to child care and veterans’ care, among other issues. A former member of the Iowa Army National Guard has also highlighted her bill, which became law, aimed at helping curb veteran suicide.
But Ernst has suffered from missteps, including her embrace this week of a discredited conspiracy theory suggesting that government statistics on coronavirus infections and deaths have been inflated.
“These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” she said to the crowd on Monday, adding that she is “so skeptical” of the official coronavirus numbers.
Public health experts ― including members of Trump’s coronavirus task force ― have repeatedly rejected the theory. They say the numbers are, if anything, underinflated.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis is similarly trying to fend off a stronger-than-expected challenge from former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham by leaning into a message of creating jobs and expanding the economy. Tillis’ gambit as he seeks a second term is that voters will judge him and his party by the state of the economy as of seven months ago ― before the coronavirus hit ― and not its current state of 10% unemployment.
“The stakes are very high this election, but you know why I know we’re going to win?” Tillis said earlier this year at his state’s Republican convention, held virtually because of the spread of the coronavirus. “Because people remember how good their lives were back in February.”
Tillis’s campaign has aired ads touting his working-class background and has tried to paint Cunningham as a hypocrite for saying the Paycheck Protection Program needed to do a better job of getting funding to minority-owned businesses while working at a firm that received a PPP loan.
While GOP candidates are sticking to mostly positive messaging about their work in the Senate, national Republican groups invoked Trump’s “law-and-order” message in a digital ad on Wednesday. Titled “Say No To The Mob,” the 2-minute spot features images of looting and protests against police brutality in several U.S. cities, accompanied by images of top Democrats like presidential nominee Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
“The juxtaposition between parties could not be more clear ― in November, a vote for Democrats is a vote for the mob,” a spokesperson for National Republican Senatorial Committee told The Hill.
That distinction, though, remains something that the actual Republicans whose jobs are on the line have been hesitant to promote.