Vulnerable GOP Senators Add Contrast to Virus Response Messaging

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Sen. Cory Gardner spent his first days in a self-imposed quarantine providing online tips to constituents on how to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, urging help for senior citizens, and highlighting his work with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to get a disaster declaration and funds for Colorado.

But by the time he was cleared to head back to work, Gardner joined fellow Republicans in attacking Democrats as being “out of step with the American people” for temporarily delaying the “direct checks” to taxpayers as part of a $2.2 trillion relief package (Public Law 116-136) that the House last week sent to President Donald Trump.

The rhetorical shift by Gardner, likely the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election, comes amid growing concern within his party that the economic shock caused by the coronavirus crisis could cost them at the polls in November.

Brad Todd, a Republican consultant at OnMessage Inc., said what lawmakers say about what the next steps should be to stimulate the economy could greatly affect the party’s election fortunes.

“We’re still far out, but there’s a good chance the campaign has a lot to do with which party is ideologically extreme and which party is trying to get our economy going again,” Todd said.

Other Senate incumbents in competitive races have also adopted a more aggressive posture.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), pivoted away from updates on resources, social distancing and small business loans to level criticism at Democrats for holding up cash to families. “I’m infuriated, I’m nauseous, and I’m on the verge of tears,” McSally said on Fox Radio before Congress passed the massive relief package.

McSally recently adopted the term “China virus” to describe the pandemic, a description initially used and later dropped by Trump. She accused Beijing of perpetuating what she said is an information war against the United States. “I’ve never trusted a communist as a general rule,” McSally said.

Sen. Thom Tillis(R-N.C.) held telephone town halls during the past weeks, including with medical experts to educate constituents on the coronavirus. More recently he joined other Republicans in criticizing Democrats’ “attempts to score cheap, partisan political points,” violating voters’ trust.

He only broke from his focus on coronavirus legislation to make critical comment on reports his colleague, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), sold $1.7 million of his stocks after receiving closed briefings on the impact of the virus. He has denied any wrongdoing but asked the Senate Ethics Committee to review the transaction.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who needs victories by these vulnerable senators to preserve his party’s majority, stressed it was the Senate that “stepped up” and passed it unanimously while urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to drop her “political talking points.” After the House also passed the bill, McConnell joined Trump at a signing ceremony that didn’t include Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Gardner spokeswoman Annalyse Keller responded that the “the only thing Senator Gardner is focused on is helping Coloradans through this crisis. That means working with anyone and everyone to accomplish that goal. That’s not a strategy, that’s just being a Coloradan.” Spokespeople for McSally and Tillis didn’t respond to requests for comment.

‘Spending Porn’

Republicans have argued that Democrats tried to load the package with money unrelated to virus relief.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), whose home state has become a coronavirus “hotspot,” voted along with all other senators of both parties for the stimulus. But back home, Kennedy, who is not up for re-election this year, called the legislation a “pox on the House” and blamed Democrats for an “enormous amount of spending porn on pet projects” that landed in the final version.

McConnell is pushing back against suggestions that the economy Republicans planned to run on this fall was anything less than “roaring,” and GOP strategists said the party is getting ready to make the election more about which party can be better trusted to manage the crisis and bring the economy back.

Read also:Virus Threatens GOP’s Senate Majority as Economic Boom Goes Bust

Republicans hold a 53-47 seat advantage in the Senate. The non-partisan Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor recently downgraded GOP’s chances of retaining the majority, saying it’s now “close to 50-50 odds.”

Schumer and other Democratic leaders defended their insistence on slowing the bill down for two days to negotiate provisions to ensure adequate oversight of the huge funds being set aside for industry and aid to the nation’s airlines, to ensure the money wasn’t used to pay for executives’ bonuses and stock buybacks.

Democratic Ads

Democrats are also trying to seize the moment politically, announcing they are running millions of dollars on ads attacking Trump’s handling of the crisis, including his dismissing the coronavirus threat as a “hoax.” Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC, said it spent $600,000 to run the ad in Arizona in addition to the $6 million already committed in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.

“It’s about showing who has the better ideas now,” said Brian Walsh, a partner at FP1 Strategies, a Republican consulting firm whose clients have included McSally and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who also are running for re-election this fall. “The Democrats are going to have the onus of putting up their own policy solutions as well.”

Walsh said some GOP Senate candidates in tough races ultimately may have to weigh how much they want to engage in national controversies like Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“If the national environment turns darker economically, focusing on some of these local issues is going to be critical,” Walsh said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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