It’s the most difficult environment in a generation.
The issue matrix has shifted dramatically from a few months ago when the environment was among voters’ top concerns — and could shift again before November.
The pool of likely voters is murky as turnout is difficult to forecast, in part, because the electorate may look dramatically different as more voters are drawn into the process through expanded vote-by-mail programs.
And as lockdown orders are lifted — or in some cases extended — different parts of the country are having hyper-localized experiences with COVID-19.
Having considered all this, media consultants and polling professionals tell C&E their messaging strategy in starting to come into focus.
“We’re definitely going to be holding Republicans accountable for their votes on healthcare, on preparedness, on CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] funding,” said Martha McKenna, a Maryland-based Democratic media consultant.
“The country wasn’t prepared for this, and there are reasons,” she said. “We should have been doing the Obama administration investments in preparation.”
Similar messaging was test-driven in Tuesday’s California and Wisconsin special House elections.
In Wisconsin, losing Democratic candidate Tricia Zunker ran Facebook spots leading up to Tuesday on “increasing access to affordable health care, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, ensuring quality education for our children, and standing up for our farmers,” according to the company’s ad archive.
Meanwhile in California, Democratic candidate Christy Smith, who is expected to lose the special to fill former Rep. Katie Hill’s (D) suburban Los Angeles seat, alternated on Facebook between a positive spot highlighting the “stakes” in the race for the community, and hitting Republican Mike Garcia on his support from President Trump.
Despite the current state of national emergency, which in the past may have diluted partisan tension, McKenna said this cycle would have a similar tone as the previous two. “The stakes are higher,” she explained.
Still, some GOP strategists see candidates adopting a “hopeful” message in their advertising through the summer months.
“Everyone right now is trying to word their stuff a little bit more sensitively,” said Casey Phillips, co-founder of GOP media firm RedPrint Strategy.
“Everybody has to acknowledge that we’re living in a slightly altered reality right now. It would be fairly tone deaf if you were running the same campaign today as you were two months ago.”
Phillips added: “I’m not saying that it’s going to be everyone around the campfire singing kumbaya, but there is going to be more nuance.”
Nuance isn’t something all practitioners are advocating for right now. In fact, Ashlee Rich Stephenson, a VP and national political director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has a clear messaging strategy for incumbents.
She said it's critical they highlight their work on passing major pieces of pandemic relief legislation, including the CARES Act.
“It will be a swing and a miss for any senators and incumbents who don’t define their work related to CARES and PPP,” the Small Business Administration loan program contained in the legislation that subsequently received additional funding.
Rich Stephenson noted that the "gold standard" on this has been GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is facing a tough reelection bid.
"She was the first one to switch out her messaging to make it focusing on the CARES Act and the pandemic," she said.
Another observer has described her spots as similar to public service announcements.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also pivoted to similar messaging, although he also hits his Democratic challenger Amy McGrath in the same spot.
That’s a blueprint for other candidates, according to Rich Stephenson.
"You should always run a solutions-orientated campaign, particularly right now when so many Americans are hungry for a path forward.”
She added that while contrast advertising was unlikely to disappear in 2020, those types of spots need to be calibrated appropriately.
“It’s important to be mindful, in a Trump era, it is shirts versus skins. The pandemic did not disrupt that. It did not create a larger, friendlier, swing audience," she said. “But if you’re not offering solutions to fix [pandemic-related problems], and instead just being critical, you’re walking off the plank.
“It’s not enough to finger point in this economic era.”