Four months ago, Sen. Thom Tillis put out an ad defending President Donald Trump from impeachment, boasting about the White House’s trade deals, and triumphantly noting that the president would be on the ballot in November.
This past week, references to the president were entirely absent from the vulnerable North Carolina Republican’s latest campaign spot. In fact, the ad centered on his state’s economic pain at the precise moment that Trump’s re-election campaign was trying to sell a nascent economic recovery that it dubbed the “Great American Comeback.”
Tillis’ change in tone underscores a much larger trend that’s taking place among the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican members. While many are happy to tout Trump in email and social media fundraising appeals, the president has all but disappeared from the ads they’re airing in their home states.
The Daily Beast reviewed 15 publicly available ad spots created since March by Republican Senate campaigns in the competitive states of North Carolina, Maine, Colorado, Arizona, and Montana. Fourteen of them made no mention of Trump. The only one that did, an ad from Tillis’ campaign in late April, simply mentioned that he’d been appointed to a White House coronavirus task force. By contrast, Democrats in a number of competitive Senate contests have used their television ad time to attempt to tie Republican incumbents to the president.
In Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner unveiled his first TV ad of the cycle just last month highlighting his work securing coronavirus aid for his state. The 30-second spot didn’t mention Trump. But it did plug Gardner’s collaboration with Jared Polis, Colorado’s Democratic governor.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has likewise sought to burnish her bipartisan credentials. One recent TV ad from her campaign featured shots of Collins alongside Democratic colleagues including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But Trump was nowhere to be found in that spot, or any other her campaign has aired over the last couple months.
The economic damage wrought by the coronavirus, which the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday it expects to persist, has coincided with a cratering of Trump’s standing in national polling. And Trump’s conspicuous absence from Senate Republican ads tracks internal tactical advice that the National Republican Senatorial Committee relayed to Senate campaigns in April when it told them to avoid publicly defending White House efforts to combat the coronavirus and instead attack China over its complicity in the virus’ early spread.
That’s a tactic that a number of vulnerable Senate Republicans have embraced. Sen. Martha McSally’s (R-AZ) first ad of the cycle attacked her opponent, Mark Kelly, over his support for impeachment. Her campaign hasn’t mentioned Trump in any of the five ads uploaded to its YouTube page since late April. Instead, she’s plugged her own work securing coronavirus aid for her state and gone after Kelly over his business ties to China.
Michigan Republican John James, who is hoping to unseat Democrat Sen. Gary Peters and has publicly distanced himself from some of Trump’s more outlandish comments, has also seized on the China angle in advertising surrounding the coronavirus. One of his recent ads hit Peters over his lack of attendance at congressional hearings concerning China. It was one of six video ads produced by the James campaign since March on issues including health care, the coronavirus, the police killing of George Floyd last month, and his own personal biography. None of those ads mentioned Donald Trump.
The ads from Republican Senate candidates this cycle also underscore the difficult task Republican candidates now face on the economic front, in which they appear to be eschewing much of the happy talk coming from the president.
Despite double-digit employment and estimates of serious long-term job loss, Trump has publicly embraced that idea of a sharp V-shaped recovery. And with the recent jobs numbers coming in well higher than expected—with 2.5 million people gaining employment in May—he’s become even more of a Pollyanna, declaring the country was “well ahead of schedule” when it comes to recovery.
For longtime Trump observers, the posture is on brand for a president who relentlessly touts how great a job he’s doing and lets the facts catch up eventually, if at all. But for political veterans, there’s real risk involved.
“I think he has to be careful because as much as he wants all that to come true it doesn’t have to for him to be re-elected,” said John Brabender, a longtime GOP operative who ran Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign. “It has to be that people believe it can come true and that things are moving in the right direction… What he can’t do is try to accelerate the benchmarks to an unrealistic level.”
The down-ballot Republican Senate candidates seem aware of those risks. In their ads—many of which were released before the most recent jobs report—they often acknowledge the economic hole the country is facing before spotlighting their efforts to help pull their states out of it. In a spot she released earlier this month, Collins called the current situation an “economic crisis” and touted the work she’s done to expand small business loans. In an ad he put out earlier this month, Gardner described the current landscape as “America’s fragile environment” before going through a list of bills he’s helped pass. And in his most recent spot, Tillis explicitly noted that one million North Carolinians are out of work.
“You absolutely need to be careful not to spike the football in the second quarter of the pandemic, with five months and several jobs reports left to go,” said Liam Donovan, a veteran of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “If people need to be convinced of how great things are, the recovery probably hasn't caught up to them yet, so effective messaging has to be more circumspect.”
There is political precedent for politicians being harmed by their failure to maneuver in a damaged but recovering economy. Democrats arguably suffered two massive midterm defeats—in 1994 and 2010—because of it. And several of the party’s top operatives have long warned lawmakers not to come off as too bullish during tough economic times, lest the voters view you as detached.
Whether Trump is hurting his own chances by showing little to no caution is less predictable, in part because of the nature of the current downturn and in part because of the nature of Trump.
“We now consistently live in a world where I (and everyone else) have never seen this stuff before,” said Bill McInturf, a longtime GOP pollster. But McInturf did note one number that seemed to be a massive red flag for anyone who wanted to campaign on the economy making massive strides—the percentage of respondents rating the economy as “excellent/good” after three major events: 9/11, the Great Recession, and COVID-19.
As measured in either the NBC/WSJ or CNBC polls, there was a 4 percentage point drop in economic confidence in the five months after 9/11; a 19 percentage point drop in economic confidence in the six months after the financial crash; and a 25 percentage point drop in economic confidence in just 24 days around the emergence of coronavirus.
Now, said McInturf, “you know why I am talking about ‘zero precedent.’”