Last Thursday was an especially grim day for the coronavirus outbreak in America. Deaths from the virus crossed 1,000, unemployment claims skyrocketed to a record 3.3 million, and state and local governments scrambled to free up hospital beds and medical equipment to treat the infected. Anthony Fauci, the public face of the government’s coronavirus response, could not venture an estimate for when the crisis might end.
There was, however, some normalcy that day. The sun rose, night fell, and a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee called Joe Biden adviser and Barack Obama’s former Ebola czar, Ronald Klain, stupid on Twitter.
The outbreak of this deadly disease may have dispensed with almost all aspects of regular life, but political warfare waged by Washington’s political committees has, for better or for worse, been stubbornly immune to the pandemic, if not intensified by it.
The fact that the outbreak has frozen most actual political campaigning is no obstacle for these groups: TV hits, speeches, and public debate over major items like the just-passed $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill have all provided plenty of material for the snarky tweets and blistering attack ads that are currently filling the political void.
Aside from the rapid-response Twitter food fight exemplified by the NRCC’s diss of Klain, outside super PACs are dropping millions on ad campaigns. The left-leaning Pacronym, for example, just bankrolled a $5 million ad campaign slamming President Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. And Unite the Country, a major super PAC supporting Joe Biden, made its first big splash on Tuesday with an ad hitting similar notes.
Contrast that with the candidates themselves, who are largely taking unprecedented steps to put politics aside as the disease wreaks havoc on their communities. Rallies have been cancelled, fundraisers moved online or postponed, canvassing put off for the foreseeable future, and nearly every other essential campaign function stalled. Many congressional candidates have instead leveraged their operations to perform acts of charity and public service. Others are even working hand-in-hand with their opponents on local response initiatives.
But Washington’s official party committees and outside super PACs are there in order to do candidates’ dirty work for them in good times and bad. There’s plenty to go around—and party operatives on both sides believe that tilling the issues raised by this crisis now will reap rewards for their sides later. But that entails walking a fine line: pressing political advantages without crossing the line—whatever that line is.
“You always have to strike a balance of being within the bounds of compassion, especially in the middle of a crisis,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist. “If you’re a party committee, every day that ticks off the clock is one less between now and the election. You have to win some races. You have to engage.”
While most political operatives caution that it’s too early to really grasp how the coronavirus outbreak will affect the election, both sides are starting to believe the crisis is bolstering their respective cases to win the White House and Capitol Hill—which makes it all the more important to be attacking each other now.
Democrats, for instance, want the 2020 election to hinge on health care, an issue that helped deliver them control of the House in the 2018 midterm. The coronavirus and the government’s response to it could very well make health care far and away the top issue for voters in November, which could make Democrats’ arguments on access, quality and affordability of care all the more resonant.
The outbreak, said a Democratic strategist, proves “exactly why” those policies are important—and why Democrats should be entrusted with the power to make them. “Republicans spent years attacking the health-care system, CDC funding,” said the operative, who spoke anonymously to discuss the issue candidly. “That has consequences, and we’re going to talk about how we get out of this but also how we got here.”
Republicans, meanwhile, would like November to come down to the economy, turf that Trump and the GOP believe they’re much stronger on. A Republican strategist told The Daily Beast that the COVID-19 outbreak, which could have potentially long-term impacts on the economy, will make their arguments land that much more forcefully.
“In the fall, assuming things start resuming to some sense of normalcy, what this really turns to is a conversation on the economy: now that we’ve gotten through it, how do we start rebuilding things?” asked the strategist, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s really good ground for us.”
In communicating those points, it’s been politics as usual for the two parties’ House campaign arms, who have largely kept within the boundaries of these key issues and their pre-pandemic communication strategies.
In recent weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has rolled out a steady stream of email blasts decrying the GOP’s “attacks on health care of jobless Americans,” echoing their consistent line of messaging. They’ve also sought to tie House Republicans to Trump’s own statements on the coronavirus response, hoping that it may become an anchor for the president and his party.
The NRCC and GOP organizations, meanwhile, have highlighted what House Democrats proposed in their coronavirus response legislation—seemingly unrelated items, like renewable energy credits and carbon restrictions for airlines getting bailed out—in their long-running quest to define the Democrats as unreasonable socialists. And, clearly, the NRCC has stuck to its self-described “mandate to be ruthless,” an aggressive communications strategy centered on name-calling and harsh attacks that has sometimes rubbed GOP lawmakers the wrong way but has won over party leaders.
But even the hardest-charging groups have urged restraint on the part of the candidates themselves. In a memo to campaigns at the beginning of the outbreak, NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-MN) reminded: “At times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste.”
There have been some misfires on that front, so far. Trent Christensen, a Republican challenging Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT), rolled out an ad on March 18 depicting members of Congress in hospital beds and in wheelchairs in order to make the case that most lawmakers had been in office too long. Hours after the video went up, McAdams announced he had contracted COVID-19 himself; Christensen then edited out the hospital imagery, saying he wanted to make the tone “appropriate.”
And when President Trump ventured his unrealistic wish last week for the country to get back to normal by Easter, Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) tweeted an image of the president as the grim reaper with the caption “Happy Easter, grandma!” Stevens, who raised eyebrows on Friday by showing up to the House floor wearing latex gloves and shouting about the plight of health-care workers, later responded “my aunt sent it to me and I thought it was funny for both sides.”
For the most part, candidates have offered a stark split-screen, retreating from the messy realm of politics and throwing themselves into crisis response—a move that, while helpful, doubles as a valuable opportunity to leave a positive impression of leadership and ward away the dreaded “politicizing a crisis” line of attack.
While Democratic super PACs drop blistering ads criticizing Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has kept his powder dry on the most aggressive attacks. While he’s criticized the administration's management of emergency supplies, for example, he has rebuffed interviewers’ questions about whether Trump is personally responsible for the suffering unleashed by COVID-19 in America.
Incumbent lawmakers, meanwhile, are spending long days on the phone coordinating with local authorities; in the absence of in-person campaigning to bolster their profiles, non-incumbents are trying to play a similar role, leveraging their email lists and volunteer bases to facilitate volunteering and philanthropy.
In hard-hit New York City, two rivals who fought a bitter race in 2018—Democratic Rep. Max Rose and his likely GOP challenger, state legislator Nicole Malliotakis—are working closely together on the local response. “Right now, nobody should be talking politics in any way, shape or form,” Rose told NBC. “Nobody. Now, the only thing that anybody should be concerned about is saving lives.”
It’s a sentiment shared by others around the country. “This is an actual crisis,” a Republican campaign manager told The Daily Beast, speaking anonymously to discuss their strategy. “We obviously work in politics, but we’ve been, like, what can we do to try and make things better—and communicate with folks in a way that’s not gross?”
“That’s the challenge,” said the Republican. “It’s more Washington politicizing versus people out in the country not politicizing.”