On the campaign trail, vulnerable Senate Republicans tout accomplishments, sidestep Trump mentions in ads

But in the halls of the Senate, party loyalty leads the narrative.

May 13, 2020, 10:31 PM

As the long-term effects of the devastating coronavirus pandemic become more apparent and the country assesses reopening, critics claim some vulnerable Senate Republicans appear to be shifting their campaign messaging away from their ties to President Donald Trump.

Recent polling has shown Trump’s approval ratings on the pandemic pale in comparison to his executive counterparts at the state level and his underwater marks appear to be bleeding into the ways that incumbent Republicans fight their battles on the campaign front. An ABC News / Ipsos poll showed President Trump's approval ratings on the coronavirus response remaining underwater, with the latest number at 42%.

Some campaigns appear to be turning away from Trump in an effort to reiterate their accomplishments in providing aid to their home states, while in the halls of the Senate, party loyalty leads the narrative. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican running an uncompetitive race this year, even released an ad on Tuesday, primary day in Nebraska, highlighting that, at times, he has criticized Trump and received negative attention from the president for doing so.

PHOTO: Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. John Thune, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Joni Ernst and Sen. John Barrasso attend a press conference in the Hart Senate Office Building, May 5, 2020 in Washington.
Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. John Thune, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Joni Ernst and Sen. John Barrasso attend a press conference in the Hart Senate Office Building, May 5, 2020 in Washington. McConnell said that his Senate GOP caucus wants to take a pause on another coronavirus relief bill for now and evaluate legislation that has already passed.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images, FILE

Although Arizona Sen. Martha McSally hosted Trump in his first visit outside of Washington since the country began re-opening, he hasn’t been featured in her campaign ads, posted on YouTube and paid for by her campaign, and public opinion shows his approval rating on coronavirus response is tanking.

The campaign, though, says they still feel McSally’s ties to Trump are ultimately beneficial.

“Obviously, Sen. McSally was happy to have the president come and tout what Arizona is doing,” a campaign spokesperson said. “It was a good thing. They did get relief out pretty quick, that’s been one of the president’s priorities, so I think it does help.”

McSally's Senate office announced Tuesday night that she met with President Trump to discuss further flexibility in Arizona's CARES Act funding.

Vulnerable Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst recently did a tele-townhall with Team Trump. A visit to Iowa is the first trip outside of Washington Vice President Pence made. ABC News asked the Ernst campaign what the focus of the senator's ads has been in recent weeks.

“Joni’s focus is on providing relief to Iowans during the pandemic. Whether it’s Iowa’s agriculture or small business communities, rural hospitals, or families, Joni is committed to delivering the resources they need,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

When asked for clarification as to why the campaign wasn't focusing on the federal or White House responses to coronavirus, the Ernst campaign did not respond to inquiries.

After the publication of this story, the campaign raised to ABC News that Ernst does have an ad featuring former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders asking for donations to Ernst's campaign because of the senator's support for Trump.

Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to point out what they see as the change in messaging and strategy.

“They're clearly trying to change the conversation from being about the president's handling of this, and the overall federal government's response to this, because they know that it's unpopular,” Stewart Boss, press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview.

The Trump campaign in a statement called the strategy ridiculous.

"That’s a foolish strategy. President Trump is going to be re-elected. Candidates who want to be successful should run with the President," Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh said.

Matt Corridoni, spokesperson for Democratic outside group Senate Majority PAC, echoed that sentiment, saying these senators are in a tricky position, six months out from November.

"I think this cycle Donald Trump has a lot of these candidates between a rock and a hard place. If you hug him, you risk alienating the moderate independents," Corridoni said. "But if you criticize him, you run the risk of alienating the base. This is really delicate tightrope."

But for senators who have tied themselves to Trump in the past to wield his support, it can be hard to draw the line between their campaign and President Trump’s, said Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and vocal critic of Trump’s.

“Once you're associated with Donald Trump... the stink is on you. You don't get away from it,” Wilson told ABC News.

In a memo from a Republican strategic communications firm obtained by POLITICO, campaigns were directed not to defend Trump’s performance on coronavirus, but to deflect their answers to China instead.

“Note - don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban -- attack China,” the memo reads. The memo wasn’t independently obtained or reviewed by ABC News.

Wilson said the playbook going forward may be hard to navigate, with only six months remaining in the cycle.

“They're faced with a terrible conundrum and the conundrum is very simple. They have to break with Donald Trump to survive. Donald Trump and his face will kill them. So, it is a really grim circumstance for these Republican candidates,” he said.

A McSally ad from February this year attacked her Democratic opponent Mark Kelly for supporting the impeachment of President Trump. Now recent campaign ads on YouTube show her at a food bank and relief she has been able to bring to her state in Congress. An ad from North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis from September of 2019 calls Trump a "warrior." His most recent digital ad buy highlights bi-partisan efforts to pass relief legislation.

The lack of Trump in campaign messaging isn’t a coincidence for Democrats.

Meanwhile, Tillis and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, among others, haven’t been quick to bring up the president on the campaign front, falling out of step with the typical loyalty the party has seen under the Trump administration.

"Senator Tillis is not criticizing the way any executive is responding to COVID-19, whether it be President Trump or Gov. Cooper in North Carolina,” Andrew Romero, a Tillis campaign spokesman, said. “He’s backed both executives-- and they belong to different parties -- because he doesn’t really believe that this is a partisan issue, it’s more about, 'how do we create the most unified and effective response?' He believes it transcends partisanship and is more about problem solving.”

Tillis, McSally and Collins, a group of Republican senators seen as some of the most vulnerable in 2020 who are facing formidable competitors in their bids for re-election, have all used their media to blast messages of delivery of economic relief to their constituents, while Democrats maintained that relief funding isn’t vast enough, and reports show small business relief funding is being funneled to large corporations.

“The voters believe that the PPP and the CARES Act are taking care of Wall Street, not Main Street. And I don't think they're even wrong,” Wilson said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement that when it comes to President Trump, "the numbers don't lie,"

"The numbers don’t lie, when President Trump weighs in he gets results. His keen political instincts and unrivaled ability to ignite Republican turnout are why I believe 2020 will be a tremendous success for GOP candidates nationwide," McCarthy said.

Wilson said, thought, he doesn’t feel the federal response with the CARES Act has been enough to keep voters satisfied with the GOP.

“Set aside the political thing. This is basically 2008 all over again. I don't think that this is trickled down to American voters, that this is a net-positive in any way, whatsoever for them.”

Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy and an expert in political behavior at Stanford, says that if President Trump were to lose in November, the data points to the same outcome for vulnerable Republican incumbents.

“One thing we've noticed over the last few Senate election cycles, the number of split ticket decisions from the president and the Senate elections is very, very small. They've been declining, a lot for the last 30 years,” Malhotra said. “There's just very few cases of a senator keeping their seat or winning their seat, and then the president having the opposite result.”

The current political climate will be more conducive to Republicans who can lean on their individual accomplishments, Malhotra said.

“I think they kind of understand that as Trump does worse in their states, they have to do a better job claiming a personal vote. That's why they're trying to kind of claim credit for their legislative accomplishments that relate to COVID-19 specifically,” he said.

Corridoni said making the pivot to legislation could lead to a backfire down the road, given some of the vote records that Democrats and Republicans alike call the most consequential.

"I understand the tactic of wanting to switch away from talking about Trump just because of where he has them right now. Pivoting to legislation, I don't think, puts them in any better of a position, because they're all running on records that they now have to defend, like voting to eliminate protections for pre-existing conditions," Corridoni said.

Democrats see the shift in messaging in an attempt to focus on individual accomplishments as a positive sign for November.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Iowa, in the Oval Office of the White House, May 6, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Iowa, in the Oval Office of the White House, May 6, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP, FILE

“I think that tells you that they're concerned they're not getting enough traction with voters, on ... what they're doing in response [to coronavirus],” the Democratic strategist said. “I think public opinion is very much on our side, as we've been pushing to get these improvements to the relief packages.”

“They also are touting things in the CARES Act, and other legislation passed on coronavirus, that they had specifically voted to undermine,” the strategist said. “That was because Democrats fought to increase the amount of money. Republicans attacked Democrats for holding up the aid, and are now celebrating how much money is going to hospitals.”

Republicans, on the other hand, feel that the overall success of the CARES Act could balance out any poor approval ratings of the president as his party navigates the pandemic.

"DSCC-backed challengers seem more inclined to attack the enormously popular CARES Act - a bill that passed the Senate unanimously - than the communist government in China responsible for allowing this virus to ravage the globe," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Jesse Hunt said.

Both Republican and Democratic strategists say pointing to the economy, a staple for Republican campaigns in their effort for re-election, isn’t the strongest move for vulnerable incumbents looking to stay in Congress, given the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. Even with the slow reopenings, businesses aren’t expected to open all at once, but in phases.

Republicans are still looking to center the 2020 elections on the cornerstone issue for their party.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an ad, calling out Democrats for what they said was their excitement over the economic downturn.

“You can't paper over all the things at the top of the spectrum by pointing to the stock market, or saying that you have the greatest economy of all time, or any of the things that Trump kind of depends on,” Wilson said. “And there's nothing that you can you can you can say, not to even your hardcore Trump supporters, that overwhelms the negative messaging of a disastrous response to COVID-19, that is going to end up killing many thousands of Americans.”

The race to the general election in November, which will ultimately be seen as a referendum on President Trump and the party, has barely started, the GOP official said.

“The campaign really hasn't begun yet, and once that does happen, I think you'll see a very strong reaction in favor of Republicans, once we promote that contrast,” the GOP official said. “It’s interesting to look at some of these Democratic candidates who don’t really have much to bring to the table in this sort of situation. If you don’t have a voting record, you don’t have any current official role as a legislator, as an elected official, they are going to find themselves in kind of a tricky situation.”

Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Sen. Joni Ernst did not run ads highlighting Trump. The senator did recently run an ad highlighting that support. The story has changed to reflect that fact.

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