Do voters care about the pandemic? That is a key question in Kansas going into the fall general election for U.S. Senate and U.S. House. In the months leading up to the Aug. 4 primary, Republican candidates apparently decided that their party voters did not care too much, with only 8% of all broadcast TV ads addressing the effects of the coronavirus.
However, in part because unaffiliated voters are banned from participating, only a relatively small portion — 34.2% — of all registered voters in Kansas voted in the primaries, with only 22.3% voting in the Republican primary. Which begs the question as to whether general election voters — especially unaffiliated voters, who make up 30% of the voting population — want the pandemic addressed.
Kansas Democrats think that they do. Barbara Bollier, who is running for U.S. Senate, has aired four TV ads since the primary and two are devoted to the coronavirus. In the first ad, she laments that the country can’t come together over this crisis. In her second ad, her message is that the virus "isn’t a game" and her opponent, Roger Marshall, is not taking it seriously.
In the 3rd District congressional race, incumbent Sharice Davids’ first two TV ads focus on the coronavirus and how, as she says, it "has impacted how we live, learn and work." One ad feature Davids Zooming and Skyping with people and also of her holding a "Town Hall" in a parking lot with people socially distancing and wearing masks, while another is about the economic impact of the pandemic.
In the 2nd District, candidate Michelle De La Isla has made a unique series of videos, in which she walks up to a house door, knocks and the point of view changes to the person answering the door. De La Isla then takes off her mask, introduces herself, and says, "I would love to knock on your door, but we’re coming to you virtually."
In one of these videos she even says to the "virtual" voter: "Oh, you’re a Republican? Fabulous! Your story matters, too." Finally, pro-Democratic political action committee TV ads that are currently airing highlight COVID-19 and the GOP response to it.
On the Republican side, it’s too early to be sure if GOP candidates and political action committees believe that addressing the pandemic is a winning message, however of the five PAC ads and two candidate ads that are running, only one mentions the virus.
Four pro-Marshall PAC ads on TV mention the issues of illegal immigration, the economy and the 2017 tax cuts, while a digital ad by a national GOP PAC stresses street protests and says: "Say no to the mob, say no to Barbara Bollier."
Roger Marshall has two ads out: the first addresses abortion, gun laws and illegal immigration, while the second says he’s a "problem-solver" and says he was the "among the first to sound the alarm on coronavirus" and helped COVID patients in a hospital.
A recent PEW Research poll found that the top issues for Trump supporters were the economy and violent crime, while the top issues for Biden supporters were health care and the COVID outbreak.
So it could be that we will continue to see two very different campaigns this fall. You can expect to see campaigns by Republicans drafting behind Trump, in a state he will surely win, and stressing traditional bedrock conservative issues and campaigns by Democrats emphasizing the pandemic with the hope that some Trump voters will cross over and reward them for prioritizing an issue that has so dramatically turned life upside down.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at email@example.com.