Reporter's Notebook: As coronavirus sparks changes, DC blame game intensifies

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People have been scrambling to better understand how the coronavirus would affect campaigns in this election year -- but it’s clear the finger-pointing has intensified.

Nobody seemed to know how the coronavirus would determine who’d show up to vote, or if voters will cast ballots by mail, a suggestion backed by most Democrats. Nobody seemed to know if red areas turned blue because of the coronavirus, or if previously blue turf turned red.

Is the electorate the same? How has it changed? Can people get to the polls? Are voters willing to get to the polls?

But, some things don’t change. President Trump’s performance on the ballot this fall certainly will dictate a lot in House and Senate contests -- and neither Democrats nor Republicans have diminished their attacks on the respective House and Senate leaders. Republicans have continued to torch House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democrats have continued to lob grenades at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Both sides have seen opportunity in demonizing those leaders -- as the opposition party in both chambers tried to wrest control from the majority.

If nothing else, the attacks have been more vitriolic than before. Besides the president, Pelosi and McConnell have remained the biggest names in politics. Both leaders have been on the air and visible. And, as the rest of the world has cascaded sideways due to the coronavirus, Democrats and Republicans have tried to simplify things for the voters, reverting to tried-and-true methods: McConnell=bad, Pelosi=bad.

McConnell is up for re-election this fall. On paper, McConnell’s race isn’t anything close to a competitive seat like the one held by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. It hasn’t held upset potential like races involving Georgia Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Yet, McConnell’s opponent, Democrat Amy McGrath, outraised the majority leader in the first quarter of this year. Democrats have long portrayed McConnell as a boogeyman, the groundskeeper of the Senate “graveyard” where House bills would go to die. Now, Democrats have been portraying McConnell as bringing the Senate back to session to confirm “conservative judges” – without truly addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats also have been excoriating McConnell for trying to limit coronavirus liability and suggesting that states struggling economically should go bankrupt.

“The American people are demanding answers and solutions,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Senator McConnell ought to focus the Senate’s work on the crises caused by COVID-19, not right-wing judges or fulfilling his ‘pre-existing partisan wish-list’ of protecting big business from any harm done to the American people.”

It’s unclear if these refined attacks by Democrats will help McGrath unseat McConnell. Such a scenario has been a stretch from the start. But, McConnell’s presumed dominance in the race may have softened. The coronavirus has shifted the tectonic plates in ways political geologists haven’t yet understood. And, even if McGrath doesn’t come close to defeating McConnell, targeting the majority leader could help the Democrats’ chances in other races and other states.

Republicans really don’t have any chances of toppling Pelosi in her San Francisco district. But, that’s not their goal. The key for the GOP would be to reacquaint voters with Pelosi and vilify her for impeachment, keeping the House out of session while she showed off her ice-cream collection and trying to install a system in which lawmakers could vote by proxy during the pandemic.

“This is nothing but a Democrat, Pelosi power grab,” blasted Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, when asked about proxy voting. “I don’t put it past anybody in leadership to make sure they have the votes to get their agenda passed.”

CORONAVIRUS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Republicans signaled they believed that targeting Pelosi could help them win back the House.

When Pelosi authorized the creation of a select committee on the coronavirus, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., denounced it for lacking equal representation by both Democrats and Republicans. However, Republicans, then in the majority, didn’t permit an equal number of Democrats to serve on the Select Benghazi Committee.

A McCarthy spokesperson characterized the coronavirus panel as “impeachment 2.0.” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, argued that the new panel was designed to boost the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, Joe Biden. That’s because the select committee chairman, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., salvaged Biden’s campaign in the South Carolina primary. Clyburn’s assistance propelled the former vice president ahead of the pack.

Democrats had first planned to reconvene the House last week. Then, party leaders backtracked after getting health advice from the Office of the Attending Physician at the Capitol. Democrats also noted it wasn’t worth bringing lawmakers back if the next coronavirus bill wasn’t ready for the floor yet. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., turned the Democrats’ decision around on them.

“Speaker Pelosi and her House majority would rather draft bills in secret than lead our country’s reopening by showing that we can safely get back to work in Congress,” Scalise said.

McConnell and McCarthy had ganged up on Pelosi in mid-April when the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) exhausted its funding. McConnell argued Democrats should have approved an additional $251 billion on the spot. But, both Republican leaders took aim at the House speaker.

“Even as the program is saving millions of American jobs, Speaker Pelosi has said she sees ‘no data as to why we need’ to keep funding it,” McConnell and McCarthy declared in a joint statement.

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Politicians must navigate a new paradigm this fall. The 2020 election could unfold amid a second spike in coronavirus predicted by many epidemiologists. Candidates likely will find themselves trying to reach a distracted, fragmented electorate. Americans may be more focused on staying healthy, finding work and homeschooling their kids in fifth-grade fractions than voting.

Those on the ballot must compete with a lot of noise. And, when you’re running against the din, the best thing for politicians on both sides is to keep it simple. That would mean assailing those with whom voters are most familiar: McConnell and Pelosi.