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Ebola Spreading as a Midterm Campaign Issue

Ebola Spreading as a Midterm Campaign Issue

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 16, 2014

Ebola has spread to the campaign trail.

No, candidates haven’t contracted the deadly disease. But growing fears about the threat of the virus and the administration’s response to it have seeped into debates, ads, and general campaign oratory.

The pandemic has become an October surprise of sorts in a midterm election in which no campaign theme has dominated. While the threat and management of Ebola on its own may not tip the scale in individual congressional races, it comes at a time when the electorate is especially concerned about government competency amid worries tied to foreign policy and the economy.

The Ebola issue also feeds into larger arguments candidates have been making against each other. Democrats have been accusing Republicans of supporting funding cuts to government entities such as the Centers for Disease Control, saying the reductions have impeded the agency’s ability to handle outbreaks. 

Republicans argue that Ebola is yet another example of the administration’s inability to manage crises. President Obama’s approval rating is already low. And while Ebola may be not be a deciding factor for voters, some candidates hope it will cement perceptions of the administration and, by extension, Democratic candidates.

While recent polls show voters seem to be tuning out the midterms amid a barrage of ads, the public appears to be paying attention to the spread of Ebola. According to a NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 98 percent of those surveyed had heard about the disease; only 56 percent said the country was prepared to handle a possible outbreak.

The president canceled his campaign travel plans for Wednesday and Thursday in order to respond to growing concerns about the disease, calling House Speaker John Boehner to talk about what Congress could do.

(Also on Thursday, a Texas nurse who had been treated for Ebola in Dallas was transferred to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda.)

Underscoring just how politically important the issue has become for some midterm contests, two  candidates engaged in competitive and consequential U.S. Senate races took precious time off from the campaign trail to travel to Washington for a House subcommittee hearing Thursday on the CDC’s disease containment and treatment protocols.

While being seen in Washington during campaign season is traditionally viewed as a liability, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa knew their presence at the Energy and Commerce panel’s hearing would be an asset.

Braley, who is trailing GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst by two points in the RCP average, was scheduled to fly back to Iowa for a debate Thursday evening. Braley has already come under fire for skipping hearings in the past, so his decision to attend this high-profile one the day of a debate was telling. Braley has said he is concerned that the administration didn’t act fast enough in its response after a man infected in Liberia spread the disease to two U.S. health workers in Dallas.

At a Senate debate Wednesday night in Colorado, Gardner and Democratic incumbent Mark Udall sparred over how to address the threat. Gardner is one of many Republicans who have called for an immediate ban on travel to the U.S. from West African countries. At the hearing on Thursday, he pressed officials for improved screenings and the banning of travel, as did most other members of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

In the Colorado debate, Udall said health professionals should be making decisions about whether the threat is grave enough to close off borders. He also slammed Gardner for backing cuts to the CDC. Gardner defended his votes by saying the funds were being used for extraneous programs, including “jazzercise,” that were examples of government waste.

Travel restrictions have become a contentious issue in other Senate campaigns too.

During a debate in North Carolina this week, for example, Republican Thom Tillis slammed incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan for not advocating a ban and accused her of simply waiting for the president’s direction. Hagan has said travel restrictions wouldn’t solve the crisis, but she would be open to them as part of a larger strategy to deal with the epidemic.

Tillis and other Republican candidates have been using the issue to call for further border controls. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, engaged in one of the most surprisingly close elections this cycle, has also called for restrictions, saying he has no confidence in the administration to handle the issue. And in New Hampshire, Republican candidate Scott Brown has said a “porous border” can lead to the infiltration of Ebola and other diseases.

At the House subcommittee hearing on Thursday, one Texas official apologized for the treatment of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian who died of Ebola in a Dallas hospital last week.

"Unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes,” said Dr. Daniel Varga, the chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources. “We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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