COVID-19 Will Be A Weapon In The 2020 Election. Some Groups Are Testing Their Messages Now

Courtesy Facebook Ads Library
A screen capture of Facebook ads the Colorado Values Project ran against Republican state Sen. Bob Rankin.

COVID-19 may have driven the 2020 election mostly out of the headlines, but it’s still coming. And so, possibly inevitably, is the politicization of the pandemic.

Colorado has already seen some of the opening entries in this effort, from both sides.

A Democratic-aligned nonprofit, the Colorado Values Project, used COVID-19 in online attack ads against two potentially vulnerable Republican state senators. 

“Colorado Republicans denounce Polis’ statewide stay-home order,” reads the ad on Facebook, “Tell state Sen. Bob Rankin stop playing politics with our lives.” The spots started running on April 14. None are currently listed as active. 

Rankin is a member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee known for working well with Democrats. He hadn’t seen the ads until CPR alerted him. He called it infuriating and thinks they are based on a letter he and other GOP Senators signed expressing disappointment over how Democratic Gov. Jared Polis unveiled his “stay at home” executive order. The letter said the governor’s order led to significant public confusion.   

Rankin has also sought more flexibility for rural parts of the state that have a small number of COVID-19 cases. 

“Rural hospitals have been greatly damaged. Children in districts with almost no COVID-19 cases are at home without internet connection,” Rankin said. “What is our duty to our constituents if not to remain active representatives in these troubling times?” 

Because it’s structured as a nonprofit, the Colorado Values Project doesn’t have to disclose where it gets its money or who is involved. But the law firm that filed its papers to incorporate has strong ties to the Colorado Democratic Party. And its other recent Facebook ad purchases promote Democratic state lawmakers. 

The group’s second target, Sen. Kevin Priola, said it was his father who first spotted one of the ads. As the most moderate Republican in the state legislature who frequently works with Democrats on hot button issues Priola said he’s used to “getting grief” from the right, not the left.  

One ad appeared to try to tie Priola to a comment Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville made last month comparing stay-home orders to "tyranny," leading to a "Gestapo-like mentality." Later, after Gov. Polis, who is Jewish, took personal offense at people using Nazi terms to describe his actions, Neville told the Denver Post he should have used the word “authoritarian.”

Gov. Jared Polis gets emotional Wednesday, April 15, 2020, during a news update on COVID-29 response.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis gets emotional Wednesday, April 15, 2020, during a news update on COVID-19 response.

“Right now, your closest political allies are spreading dangerous disinformation about the coronavirus in Colorado — likening critical safety measures to Nazi Germany, calling for the firing of health experts working to contain the pandemic, and undermining the Governor's stay-at-home policy, which is needed to save tens of thousands of lives in our state,” state’s the ad. “We are alarmed by these irresponsible attacks during this crisis, and we are disappointed in your failure to stand up for what's right. It's time for you to break your silence.”

Priola often breaks from his own party and did not sign the Senate GOP letter criticising the governor’s stay-at-home order. “I don’t think it was helpful or useful. In moments of crisis people want us to come together.”

Both Rankin, who’s from Carbondale, and Priola, from Henderson, occupy seats Democrats are eyeing to pick up in the fall election, as they work to expand their slim majority in the state senate.

“It’s just politics. It is what it is. I don’t hold any malice to the Democrats or the Republicans who criticize me on stuff,” Priola said. But he added that it was ironic that Democrats were attacking him over COVID-19 when he’s communicated frequently with his constituents. “I’ve tried to be as helpful as possible, just tried to not muddy the water.”

The ads cost less than 2 thousand dollars to run on Facebook. Political consultants say these low dollar buys are a tool to collect voter information, and to test messages to see what gains traction. If this angle of attack is successful it could be used for larger ad buys closer to November, including flyers and video.  

Courtesy Facebook Ads Library
A screen capture of Facebook ads the Colorado Values Project ran against Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola.

Republicans are also using coronavirus to more generally whip up supporters and collect information. Neville, who’s in charge of election efforts for House Republicans, recently sent out a call to action email from the House GOP campaign arm, Take Back Colorado, urging people to sign a petition opposing the governor’s executive orders. Emails like this are one way political groups collect information about supporters and possible donors.

“Governor Polis and Democrats are wreaking untold havoc on the lives and livelihoods of every single Colorado resident,” the email reads, before asking people who agree to submit [information].