As the coronavirus pandemic has worn on, it’s raising questions about how the government has responded and what the best way is to recover the economy, while highlighting the need for better health care and working conditions. In short, it’s become a political issue.

Political ads in Maine’s U.S. Senate race are focusing on shortages of personal protective equipment and economic relief for small businesses. A recent rally in Augusta pitted conservatives against the state’s Democratic governor as they called on her to ease restrictions and come up with a plan to reopen the state.

Voters are watching how officials and candidates are responding to the pandemic, and their concerns could carry weight in November.

“It is going to be the major issue,” said Brian Duff, associate professor of political science at the University of New England. “It’s really going to be a matter of which party does a better job grabbing ahold of their framing of that issue.”

“The appropriate response to the pandemic will be on voters’ minds,” said Dan Shea, a professor of government at Colby College. “For some voters it will be, ‘The government is not doing enough,’ while for others it might be, ‘It’s doing too much.'”

The pandemic and resulting economic recession could translate to poor results for President Trump and down-ballot candidates linked to him, according to Duff, who said the party of the president tends to perform poorly in elections when times are tough.

More than half of Mainers surveyed in a Critical Insights poll last month said the coronavirus is the top issue facing the state, and they are worried the economy will get worse in the next 12 months.

The poll, which surveyed 600 people around the state, found a slight drop in Trump’s approval rate in Maine – from 41 percent last fall to 36 percent.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, also saw a small drop in voter approval, from 42 percent last fall to 37 percent. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, saw a jump in approval from 38 percent to 51 percent, while U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, also a Democrat, saw a drop from 44 percent to 42 percent. All three are up for re-election.

“If anything, feelings towards Donald Trump are going to be a more important factor on down-ballot races than they were prior to the pandemic,” Shea said. “It will become a very potent partisan issue – the government’s response.”

Maine and other states have already seen partisan divides over whether states should reopen and when to relax restrictions, with Trump encouraging protesters to push back on Democratic governors in places like Michigan and Minnesota.

New polling released last week from The Morning Consult and Politico shows that nationally, Republicans are starting to worry more about the economic impacts of the virus than the public health risks.

Fifty percent of Republicans surveyed said their top concern was the economy, whereas 44 percent said they were most concerned about public health.

Last week, Republican candidates in both the 1st and 2nd District races voiced support for a rally in Augusta in which protesters called on Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to relax a statewide stay-at-home order and restrictions on businesses.

“I think they’re trying to be relevant and playing games with people’s lives and the well-being of Maine’s economy,” said Golden, when asked about his opponents’ responses to the Augusta rally. “If we open the economy too quickly in a way that isn’t safe, it won’t be good for businesses or the people of Maine and it won’t be safe.”

Adrienne Bennett, a Bangor Republican who is among three Republican challengers to Golden, said that Monday’s rally, which she participated in from home, was meant as a call to action for Mills to develop a detailed plan for reopening the state.

Before the pandemic hit, Bennett estimated she put about 18,000 miles on her car campaigning around the state. Now she mostly tries to connect with voters via Facebook.

“One thing is certain, our economy cannot take being shut down permanently or for another month or so. That’s too long,” Bennett said.

Another Republican challenger to Golden, Dale Crafts, a former state lawmaker from Lisbon, also cited the economy as a top concern.

“We need to find that balance of getting people back to work and yet staying healthy and finding creative ways to get businesses up and running without spreading the virus,” he said.

In the 1st District, Jay Allen, a New Harbor physician and Republican challenging Pingree, said he is most concerned with the state’s response and the impact of shutdowns on Maine’s tourist-based economy.

“I think we need a strategy that doesn’t kill the economy but still mitigates risk,” Allen said. “That would be greater use of social distancing and things like that but lifting that blanket stay-at-home order.”

Pingree, who like Golden has not been actively campaigning, said her office has been overwhelmed with emails and calls from constituents. She has been frustrated with the Trump administration’s response and a lack of a coherent strategy.

“The administration delivers a lot of messages,” Pingree said. “It just makes it hard for us to have a coherent strategy about what are the best techniques to use, what are the best tests to use, when should we start to open up the economy and what are the right measures to use.”

Nationally, more than 50 percent of political ads on television are now about the coronavirus, The New York Times reported last week. In Maine, where candidates in the U.S. Senate race have already raised close to $30 million, there are new ads from both Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and Collins, as well as outside groups like the Democratic PAC Majority Forward. The group recently released an ad highlighting protective equipment shortages in Maine and blaming Collins for defending the president.

Collins’ campaign in turn released an ad condemning Gideon and her supporters for spending millions on “false, negative attacks” and touting Collins’ role in co-authoring the Paycheck Protection Program, which has been providing loans to small businesses impacted by the economic shutdown.

Candidates hoping to challenge Collins said the pandemic has highlighted issues such as access to health care, paid sick leave and family leave for workers and the need to raise the minimum wage.

Betsy Sweet, a Hallowell Democrat, canceled almost 50 events when the pandemic hit Maine. She has been holding virtual town halls and daily Facebook events to connect with voters and answer questions – many of them about the virus.

“It ain’t nothing like the real thing,” Sweet said. “It’s a good second best. The joy for me in my campaigning and the strength in my campaigning is in meeting people. The ability to listen to people and learn what they’re expecting from a U.S. senator, those things are much more easily done in person.”

Sweet said she has been disappointed with the federal government’s response to the virus, and that if the U.S. had acted more quickly it could have slowed the spread. She said she has heard from voters who are concerned about the economy and who have lost their jobs or access to health care during the pandemic.

“There’s a recognition that getting back to normal is not going to work because a lot of what’s normal is broken,” Sweet said. “So this is an opportunity for those who can to really start thinking about what a new normal looks like.”

The virus has also impacted elections in other logistical ways – pushing the June primary into July, for example, and prompting new notary regulations that have made it harder for some candidates to get on the ballot.

Ross LaJeunesse, a Democrat, dropped out of the Senate race last month citing the virus as a factor, saying, “The type of campaign I planned, meeting voters where they live and work and speaking person to person, is impossible.”

Some candidates have used their platforms to facilitate conversations with experts and answer people’s questions about the virus or encourage their supporters to help their communities.

Bre Kidman, a Saco attorney and Democrat seeking to challenge Collins, stopped actively fundraising last summer. Kidman had been aiming to raise money for charities through events in each of Maine’s 16 counties, and is now trying to continue that work making sure people are able to access groceries and other needs while sheltering in place.

Independent Tiffany Bond has been asking potential donors to give their money to local businesses, rather than her campaign, something she said she was also doing before the virus struck.

Gideon’s campaign has been encouraging people to donate blood, volunteer in their local communities and has raised over $20,000 for three Maine charities helping to distribute food to people in need.

She’s also shifted away from “Suppers with Sara,” the town hall-style gatherings she had been holding with voters around the state, to virtual town halls with a focus on the virus and those affected by it.

“I think it’s more important than ever that people hear from us in these times,” Gideon said in an interview. “We’re constantly looking for ways to reach people in Maine to talk to them, reassure them and share resources and ideas.”

Gideon cited shortages of protective equipment and a lack of widespread testing as concerns and said there has been a lack of leadership at the federal level around those things.

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins’ campaign, said, meanwhile, that Collins “hasn’t hesitated to criticize the administration and has called its response very uneven.”

“She has specifically urged the Administration to base its response to the coronavirus crisis on information provided by public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci – yet she believes the President made the right decision to restrict travel from China, even though he was criticized by some Democrats,” Kelley said in an email.

While Collins’ in-person campaigning has been on pause since March 17, Kelley said she has been working with the governor, the rest of Maine’s delegation and federal and state agencies to secure resources for Maine and boost funding for COVID-19 testing.

The Paycheck Protection Program has provided $2.24 billion to nearly 17,000 Maine small businesses so far and on Friday received another $320 billion in funding to be spent nationally.

Whether the way campaigns have changed will impact races in the long term and if voters are even paying attention to electoral politics right now remains to be seen, said Shea, the political scientist from Colby.

“I think they’re paying attention to the government response to the pandemic, whether it is to help people struggling because the economy has closed down or whether or not the government should be reopen or when,” he said. “They may not be thinking about electoral politics, but they are thinking about the role of government during this tough time.”

Deborah Chretien, a Republican from Holden, said she is “kind of sitting back and watching and taking everything in.” She said she normally doesn’t pay attention to elections until the fall, but she is watching how officials and candidates respond to the pandemic.

“I’m looking for someone to stand up and say, ‘OK, we need to put a plan in action,’ instead of saying, ‘We’re waiting until tomorrow,” she said. “We have to give people something to hope for.”

Max Coolidge, an attorney from Franklin and a Democrat, said he normally follows politics, including primary races, closely. He said the pandemic has been a test of leadership for members of Congress, as well as state and local officials.

“I think it’s really highlighting a lot of the policy failures and a lot of the things we need to do better,” Coolidge said. “For example, health care tied to employment and people losing their health insurance because they’re losing their jobs. I think those issues are really going to be important.”

Senate candidate Lisa Savage, an independent Green, said the crisis has pointed to a need for improved access to health care. As she has been forced to take her campaign online, Savage has released a series of videos asking her volunteers how the pandemic has affected them and why they are still interested in working on a campaign.

“Almost all of them say, ‘Because I really care who’s in the Senate and I really think it makes a difference,'” she said.

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