In this Feb. 5, 2020, file photo the White House is seen in Washington. (Photo: AP)
The coronavirus pandemic and the country’s collapsing economy are forcing Democrats and Republicans to rethink the messaging they thought would help them win November’s elections for White House and congressional control.
Shattered, certainly for now, is President Donald Trump’s ability to tout a brawny economy and record stock market prices as the predicate for his reelection. And it could be hard for Republicans to call Democrats socialists with a straight face as Congress approaches a bipartisan deal on a near $2 trillion rescue package that would essentially have government drive the economy indefinitely.
Democrats say they’re the party that will protect people’s health care, but it’s unclear that would be heard by people focused mostly on when life will return to normal. And by pounding away at Trump’s competence, they’d risk alienating voters who, during a stressful time, want policymakers to produce solutions, not partisan wrangling.
“We’re in the middle of a hurricane. We don’t know all the political consequences. We don’t know if it’s a Cat 1 or a Cat 5,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak, referring to categories used to express the strength of storms.
Trump has seized public attention with almost daily briefings about the government’s response to the pandemic. That’s left former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, and his party’s congressional candidates searching for ways to break into the news cycle.
Clearly, campaign themes are changing.
Five political advertisers had run ads mentioning the coronavirus through last week, according to Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks ad data. That included one in Florida, in Spanish, by Biden, and two by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“In times like this, we must work together,” Collins, who faces a competitive November reelection in a state that prizes independence, tells the camera.
Priorities USA, the largest outside Democratic political organization, planned to start ads Tuesday in election battlegrounds Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The spot contrasts the skyrocketing number of coronavirus cases with Trump’s own words, including, “We have it totally under control,” and ends with the words, “AMERICA NEEDS A LEADER WE CAN TRUST” displayed against a black background.
GOP operatives say Republican candidates must emphasize rallying behind the effort to battle the twin crises.
“The message is, ‘We all need to come together, support the president and vice president and do all we can to fight the virus,’” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “Throw everything else out the window.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provided a memo last week offering guidance to its candidates.
“Remind followers through your actions that you take this seriously and would be a calm voice through crisis,” the House Democratic political arm said in the guidance obtained by The Associated Press.
It urged candidates to discuss the significance of health care access and affordability — issues that helped the party capture House control in 2018. It suggested asking voters, “How are you doing?” and “Do you need anything” during phone calls.
Among the first to test the new political world will be two rivals for an open seat in a narrowly divided House district in Los Angeles’ northern suburbs.
Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith face a special election in May, when voters seem certain to still be focused on the virus and the battered economy. As elsewhere, efforts to curb the infection’s spread means campaign phone calls and digital communications are replacing public events.
Both concede it’s hard to get people’s attention, but each said they are already sharpening their appeals to voters.
During tough times, people “retrench their patriotic feelings and remember what the important things are, and that’s God, country and family,” Garcia, a Trump supporter and former Navy fighter pilot, said in an interview. “We’re all on the same team.”
Smith, a state assemblywoman, said Americans will “rise to the occasion” but added, “Patriotism alone doesn’t set food on people’s tables.” She said Trump’s virus response has put the U.S. “woefully behind” the infection and it’s time for “a reckoning on what effective government looks like.”
Both parties say it’s too early to know if the virus will be contained and the economy resuscitated by the time voters focus on the fall campaigns — and whether they’ll blame or laud Trump and the GOP for the outcome.
Either way, Trump is casting himself as a wartime president in hopes of garnering the broad public support that usually goes to national leaders in times of crisis.
A Trump campaign fundraising committee emailed supporters Tuesday that despite the emergency, Democrats have “proved yet again that they’d rather HURT our Nation than work with their President and do what’s right.”
Biden used a fundraiser, held by phone, to swipe at Trump, who’s made numerous false statements about the virus, including on its seriousness and the availability of tests.
“We need to tell the American people the truth, the unvarnished truth,” Biden said.
“Look what we have in the White House right now,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., using that same theme. Bustos, who heads House Democrats’ campaign arm, cited Trump’s lashing out at reporters during new briefings and said, “We all look for leaders to lead in a crisis.”
Democrats are also using the virus’ spread to reprise their call for better health care.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats marked Monday’s 10th anniversary of President Barack Obama signing his health care overhaul into law. “We couldn’t need it more” than during this pandemic, Pelosi told reporters about the statute. She blamed Trump for making “mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake” in handling the outbreak.
And on the Senate floor Monday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., underscored something both parties will be looking for: ways to taint the other for using the life-altering crises to seek political gain.
McConnell accused Democrats of viewing the chamber’s blocked economic bill as “a juicy political opportunity” and trying to stuff it with environmental requirements and other priorities.
“Are you kidding me? This is the moment to debate new regulations that have nothing to do with this crisis?” he said.
Still, Republicans concede the party faces a huge downside should the virus remain uncontrolled.
“If we become Italy,” said the consultant Mackowiak, citing the country with the highest death toll so far, “there’s no question the party in power would pay a political price for that. Absolutely no question.”