U.S. Republicans look to gain election ground on Ebola

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Ebola has moved to the front of campaign issues before U.S. November elections, as fear and criticism of the government’s response to cases of the virus in the United States opened a new line of Republican attacks against President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.

Emergency personnel put on protective clothing as they prepare to enter a residential apartment after a second health care worker tested positive for the Ebola virus in Dallas October 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jaime R. Carrero

Republican Senate candidates have bashed Obama’s handling of Ebola, linking it to border security and calling for a travel ban from West African countries hardest hit by the virus.

Concerns about Ebola, along with the military campaign against Islamic State, have given Republicans a chance to turn attention to their broader argument about what they call the administration’s incompetence.

“Using Ebola is part of an attempt to turn this into a national election and tie it to President Obama’s performance,” said Steven Schier, a politics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. “If the Republicans can make this a national election, that makes it more dangerous for Democrats and could have a real effect up and down the ballot.”

Democrats have fought back by arguing that the Republican emphasis on federal budget-cutting had deprived agencies of funds needed to fight Ebola.

Three cases have been diagnosed inside the United States, a Liberian man who died in Dallas, Texas, on Oct. 8 and two nurses who treated him and are now themselves patients. The virus has killed more than 4,500 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.

The issue has spilled into campaign debates, speeches and a campaign ads as polls show rising public concern over Ebola. An Oct 16 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed nearly 80 percent of respondents were concerned Ebola.

“One way for the Democrats to keep the Senate was to control the narrative of the election,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Clearly they do not control the narrative, which essentially now is one crisis.”

Republicans need six seats to regain control of the Senate.

In Colorado, Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican challenger Cory Gardner clashed on Ebola in a debate last week.

When Udall said Gardner had voted in the House of Representatives to cut budgets for federal emergency response teams that would handle Ebola threats, Gardner shot back, “How about we use money responsibly to make sure we’re protecting the American people instead of spending it wastefully under this administration?”

Gardner and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, in a tight Senate race in Iowa, appeared at a House hearing on Ebola last week, where Republicans called for a West Africa travel ban.

Most Democrats have resisted joining that call, although at least two Democrats in tight Senate races, Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, have agreed with their Republican opponents on the issue.

Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, linked the virus to immigration in a debate this month, saying, “We have an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors coming across the border. We need to seal the border.”

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, facing a challenge from independent businessman Greg Orman, wrapped Ebola with other Republican attack lines in a debate last week. “We have ISIS (Islamic State). We have Ebola. We have to secure the border. And we cannot have amnesty,” Roberts said. Orman, who has backed air travel restrictions, did not address the comment.

Republican Scott Brown, who is challenging Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, said Ebola would not be a concern if Republican Mitt Romney had beaten Obama in 2012.

The Ebola crisis forced Obama to cancel a planned campaign trip last week for White House meetings on the issue. A Republican-led House committee will hold another hearing on the government’s response this week as Republicans seize the spotlight of a public hearing during campaign season.

Ebola has been featured in a handful of ads. Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, fighting for re-election, aired a television ad in August criticizing Republican opponent Tom Cotton’s House vote to cut funds for medical disaster programs.

A liberal group, the Agenda Project Action Fund, created a video of images of Republicans, including Roberts, Cotton and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, with images of body bags, medical workers in hazmat suits, and healthcare leaders decrying spending cuts.

Editing by John Whitesides, Toni Reinhold