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Virus Lockdowns Are Reshaping Election Fight for Senate Control

Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan

(Bloomberg) -- Near-total lockdowns across the U.S. have shaken up the race for control of the Senate, with vulnerable incumbents and their challengers ditching traditional campaigning and the coronavirus pandemic putting a focus on Democrats’ strongest issue -- health care.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine has switched from traditional campaign television spots on her record and promises for the future to ads like her most recent one featuring firefighters, doctors, police officers and restaurant workers making takeout meals.

“They are the glue that holds us together, the real heroes of the coronavirus crisis, and we thank them,” she says in the ad.

Martha McSally in Arizona, another of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, has suspended traditional pitches for money. She is directing her donors to give instead to the Salvation Army for the next 15 days and is donating her monthly paycheck to virus relief.

Incumbents and their challengers also have had to scrap in-person events for phone calls and social media town halls broadcast from their living rooms.

The Senate-control contest was tightening before the pandemic hit, with prospects for Democrats rising. The party needs at least a net gain of three seats to win back control they lost six years ago, and Republicans are defending 23 of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot in November. There are now eight GOP-held seats seen as possible flips to Democrats, while Republicans have their best chances to take Democratic seats in only two states, Alabama and Michigan.

‘More Competitive’

“It’s more competitive and moving more toward Democrats,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report. “It’s moving closer to a 50-50-shot.”

The pandemic has put health care atop the national agenda for the foreseeable future and it was the issue that drove Democratic gains in 2018. The party is highlighting Republican efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in court and on various Democratic proposals targeted at this and future pandemics, such as universal paid sick leave. Democrats also have unleashed a barrage of criticism at President Donald Trump over his early handling of the outbreak.

As a counter, GOP incumbents like Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado -- both of whom also are being targeted by Democrats -- are playing up their work with state and local officials to address the crisis and support for the $2.2 trillion economic rescue legislation.

Jack Pandol, spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, which is run by GOP allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said there is some evidence of a rally-around-the-flag effect that is helping Trump in polling that will help pull along other GOP candidates.

Voters “appear to be giving incumbents the benefit of the doubt if they are getting things done” and “many of our Republican incumbents will have powerful stories to tell down the road,” he said.

Death Toll Mounts

But it’s anyone’s guess if that will last as the death toll from the coronavirus mounts and the economy grinds to a near halt. A turn in Trump’s approval rating in either direction would again force a recalculation by both parties. The efforts to resuscitate the economy after the 2008 financial crisis by the Bush and Obama administrations started out with narrow public approval ratings in polls only to become unpopular within a few months.

One of the most immediate impacts on the campaigns has been the deceleration of fundraising along with the economy from what had been a record-setting pace.

Some campaigns still were sending out emails before Tuesday night’s first quarter FEC deadline, beseeching donors for cash. But fund-raisers for Democrats and Republicans alike say the plunging economy will hurt the bottom lines of Senate campaigns that don’t have the resources to create studios in their homes as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has.

While email fundraising operations continue, traditional fund-raising events have been canceled.

“All campaigns that I know of have stopped actively soliciting funds,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP bundler who raises money for Senate candidates. He thinks the slowdown will help appointed Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who is self-financing, and hurt candidates who have to raise money to mount a statewide race.

Gearing Up

Weekly spending in House and Senate races this year peaked at $21.5 million during the week before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks political ad spending. Outlays for ads have steeply declined since, reaching a low of $5 million in the last week of March.

Even as they dial back, campaigns are gearing up for later. The Democratic and Republican super-PACs allied with party leaders are allocating about $70 million each in television reservations for later this year in key states, including North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Maine and Colorado, where Republicans are facing tough contests.

Taylor said that Arizona’s McSally, who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, and Gardner in Colorado had been behind their Democratic challengers in polls before the outbreak hit with full force and remain the most vulnerable of all GOP incumbents.

“Those seats are leaning away from Republicans,” Taylor said.

Democrats have managed to expand their map with strong candidate recruiting and the emergence of Biden as the all-but-certain Democratic presidential nominee. Biden provides moderate top-of-ticket appeal in a year where there are vulnerable GOP-held Senate seats in Republican states like Georgia and Kansas.

Meanwhile, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, shook up his state’s Senate race, announcing in early March that he’ll challenge GOP Senator Steve Daines in a state Trump won big in 2016.

Power of Incumbency

Republicans are counting on the crisis magnifying the power of incumbency.

GOP senators like Ernst in Iowa can speak about their work with state and local officials to address the crisis, along with major legislation, meaning that “their constituents can trust them to deliver,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Gardner, who earlier this month quarantined himself after exposure to someone who tested positive for Covid-19, has stressed his work to help Colorado Democratic Governor Jared Polis’s request for funding for the state’s National Guard, and also touted his effort to help Colorado ski resorts that want a waiver from fees they pay to lease federal land. In Montana, Daines has touted his push to secure $10 billion to develop drugs to treat the virus.

Their challengers, meanwhile, struggle to grab the spotlight and insert themselves in the news.

“Tactically it’s difficult for a non-incumbent,” Pandol said.

Gardner’s likely opponent, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, held virtual town halls with health care experts, including one this week with former Obama administration Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. His campaign website also gives voters a chance to fill out a form about the challenges they’re facing during the pandemic, and Hickenlooper reaches out to some to talk about helpful resources.

Theresa Greenfield, Ernst’s leading Democratic challenger, offered her own coronavirus relief plan, has highlighted her campaign’s efforts to mitigate spread of the virus and held live events to talk about paid sick leave and other issues.

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