Politicizing the Pandemic: Will Dems' Dark-Money Ads Work?

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The coronavirus election is here with all of its vast unknowns, but so far President Trump is fighting it with one hand purposefully tied behind his back.

 In recent days Trump’s top reelection advisers put an indefinite hold on plans to bombard Joe Biden with negative ads as the nation struggles to deal with upended normal life and heightened fears about the virus and its impact on the economy.

For a president defined in large part by his hair-trigger temper and penchant for punching back 10 times harder, responding to the global pandemic as a somber commander-in-chief and leader of the free world may be one of his greatest life challenges.

Trump has slipped back into political combat mode several times. When asked about his handling of the crisis during a Wednesday press conference, he took a shot at the presumptive Democratic nominee. Without referring to a specific poll, Trump replied that “we have great approval numbers. People like the job I’m doing,” adding later, “I’m beating Sleepy Joe Biden by a lot in Florida and a lot of other states.”

The return to knocking his opponent as “sleepy” may seem almost benign compared to the Trump team’s recent efforts to tag the 77-year-old former vice president as senile.

And sticking to the pandemic response script is about to get a lot harder for Trump. A dark-money network of liberal groups, including a political action committee tied to one of former President Obama’s aides, plans to spend millions of dollars on attack ads tarring Trump’s response to the unprecedented global health crisis.

At least one of the groups, which has deep connections to the Democratic Party, has no qualms about targeting Trump as he strives to calm a fearful nation literally hunkered down to prevent the virus’ spread: Pacronym, a liberal PAC, put out a press release announcing plans to spend $5 million through July on negative ads on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Pacronym is affiliated with Acronym, the group behind the Iowa caucuses meltdown, and former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sits on its board.

Acronym has financial ties to the New Venture Fund, a nonprofit controlled by a larger umbrella organization of liberal nonprofits, Arabella Advisors, which has been criticized by conservative groups for “blurring the lines between philanthropy and political advocacy.” The groups were all founded by Eric Kessler, who worked in the Clinton administration and served as a member of the now-defunct Clinton Global Initiative.

The Capital Research Center, a conservative watchdog, issued a report last year casting Arabella as a “hydra-like” network that raked in $582 million in 2017 while benefiting from tax laws allowing it to keep many of its donors undisclosed.  

The Pacronym ads will run across digital platforms, including Facebook, in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona.

American Bridge, founded by Hillary Clinton ally David Brock, is already running coronavirus-related ads in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and this week announced it would cut another one hitting Trump’s “incompetence” and feature clips of him “downplaying the crisis.”

American Bridge and some of its affiliated organizations also received funding from New Venture Fund in 2018, as did another Arabella group called Sixteen Thirty Fund. During the 2018 midterms, Sixteen Thirty spent $141 million on more than 100 left-leaning causes, according to a Politico report.

Sixteen Thirty is also behind additional spending on coronavirus attack ads against vulnerable Republican senators, channeling money to a group called Protect Our Care. In fact, Protect Our Care is a structured as one of dozens of trade names for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, meaning it’s one of its branches, according to a report on the nonprofit’s activities and funding filed with the IRS.

“From initially downplaying the seriousness of the crisis to protect his own image, to stating last week that he bears no responsibility for the lack of testing and rise in cases across the country, President Trump’s failure to lead has worsened the crisis that will result in the loss of American lives,” Tara McGowan, the founder of Pacronym, said in a statement.

“This will be a defining issue of this presidency and this campaign, and it is imperative that Americans be reached with the facts before the most consequential election of our lives,” she said.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the attack ad campaign and its timing says far more about the Democrats than it does about Trump’s leadership. “Democrats prove themselves over and over again to be unserious,” he told RealClearPolitics. “President Trump is leading an unprecedented effort to protect this nation from a serious health crisis, while their leading candidate has an embarrassing record on this very issue.”

While suspending planned ad campaigns hitting Biden, the Trump campaign hasn’t completely stood down in its response to his criticism of Trump’s handling of virus crisis.  Murtaugh and others have repeatedly pointed to Biden’s public comments while vice president concerning then-current fears about the swine flu (he warned Americans not to take commercial flights or ride metros).

“The Obama White House had to apologize for Joe Biden’s remarks that set off a public panic,” Murtaugh said. “And when Biden made a speech about the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month, most of the actions he recommended had already been undertaken by President Trump.”

Trump’s political allies say Democrats’ decision to move forward with the ads is desperate and craven considering that the nation is now looking for leadership, not low-road politics. Democrats are politicizing the pandemic at their own peril, they argue.  

Club for Growth President David McIntosh, whose group has aired a number of TV ads boosting Trump, has yanked ads attacking Biden and put them on hold. “The response to the coronavirus has pushed the whole election off the front page,” he told Politico. “And it will restart and readjust once the immediate crisis is over.”

America First Action, a super PAC aligned with Trump, announced Feb. 26 its plans to target Trump’s “most likely Democratic challenger” with a “high-dollar digital television, and direct-mail blitz” in key battleground states. The TV and digital ads have never appeared, and the group did not respond to questions about how long it planned to shelve them.

Adam Laxalt, former Nevada attorney general who now serves as the outside counsel to a new ethics group called Americans for Public Trust, slammed the Democratic groups for trying to score “cheap political points” when most Americans are rallying together to try to get through the crisis. Arabella Advisors and Brock, he said, are taking a page out of Rahm Emanuel’s “never letting a crisis go to waste” playbook. Emanuel served as Obama’s White House chief of staff and spent six years as a House member before that.

“We haven’t been through many crises of this scale,” Laxalt told RealClearPolitics. “I couldn’t have imagined someone running an attack against George W. Bush two weeks after 9/11, but that’s where we are.”

“I think it’s disgraceful,” he added. “Now, I’m not naïve, I know there will be a time to campaign, but there’s a long time between now and the general election. To do this right this second, seems beyond the pale.”

Republicans supportive of Trump such as Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to George W. Bush, have suggested that the decision to put the negative ad blitz on ice will be a huge boon to Biden, who has still canceled fundraisers and some campaign events in the face of the crisis.

But others privately predict it will come back to bite Democrats, especially after several prominent Dems, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and one of Trump’s harshest House critics, “Squad” member Rep. Ilhan Omar, this week offered high praise of the administration’s handling of the pandemic after slamming him over his earlier response.

“His team is on it. They’ve been responsive,” Cuomo said at a press conference Tuesday. “I want to say thank you.”

It’s the perfect script for a ready-made general election Trump ad in the months ahead whether the coronavirus crisis has subsided or not. Plouffe, Brock and others on the left appear willing to risk the criticism of politicizing coronavirus for a chance at cementing a negative narrative amid the pandemic.

Whether it’s successful or not will largely depend on how Trump continues to manage the outbreak and whether the infection curve flattens. If everything goes sideways, he will pay the price and likely face defeat. If he exceeds expectations and lives are saved, he could rally the nation and come out the victor.

The nation’s uncertainty has Omar, one of the most polarizing national political figures who has repeatedly drawn the president’s ire, treading carefully and talking unity.

“@AyannaPressley always says, unprecedented times require unprecedented leadership and we are seeing that in our country right now,” Omar tweeted Wednesday. “I have faith that we will survive this as a nation and build together.”

The often-fiery Minnesota Democrat then added this: “Finally, we should never let good politics get in the way of good policy. This is a great start and hope others will be part of a united front to push for good policies that will help us work through the economic anxiety the country is feeling right now.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Acronym is financed by the New Venture Fund. It now states that Acronym has financial ties to NVF.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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