BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Candidates in the November election who already hold office are grappling with a thorny question: where does the coronavirus stop and the campaign begin?
In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s actions helped keep the state’s infection rate from the COVID-19 pandemic among the lowest in the nation. But he’s being criticized by Republicans for blurring the line between his official duties and a bid for a U.S. Senate seat after inserting into campaign ads photos of himself visiting a virus testing center on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
A spokesperson for incumbent Sen. Steve Daines accused Bullock of “staging photo-ops” at testing events. Bullock’s campaign says the photos were in the public domain and the charges are baseless.
The dispute illustrates how the all-consuming nature of the pandemic is creating unforeseen dilemmas for candidates, leaving office holders open to allegations they’re capitalizing on the crisis while seeking to demonstrate their effectiveness in the virus fight.
Similar tensions have cropped up elsewhere including Utah, where Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said he lowered his visibility with the coronavirus response after coming under criticism from opponents in the gubernatorial primary.
In Washington state, GOP leaders accuse incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee of using regular coronavirus press briefings to make partisan attacks as he seeks re-election.
And in North Carolina, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is hoping to unseat Gov. Roy Cooper, has come under fire for politicizing the virus with a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the Democratic governor over his public health orders.
Raising such criticisms presents pitfalls that go beyond any single race, said Lee Banville, a professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
In Bullock’s case, Banville said that if Republicans can show the only reason he went to the testing event was to further his campaign, they will have proved he violated the law. Regardless, he said the dispute has the potential to set a precedent that cuts both ways.
“You’re basically saying that any time somebody does something in their official duties in their elected office, they can’t use any of that material…in their effort to win re-election," Banville said.
”I’m not sure Republicans or Democrats would be super excited to hear (that)," he added.
The Montana race is one of a handful across the country that will decide which party controls the Senate. The state Republican party has filed a formal complaint over the testing site photos, which the GOP alleges violated state ethic rules that prohibit using public time or resources to promote candidates.
State Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, a Bullock appointee, has not decided whether to pursue an investigation. He told The Associated Press he was awaiting Bullock’s response.
The photo was taken by the governor's communications director on May 15 and used in a press release and on Bullock's Facebook page. It was later used in two ads that were reviewed by Bullock before they began airing this month, said campaign spokesperson Olivia Bercow.
“This photo is in the public domain. It was shared numerous times including on local TV news,” Bercow said.
Bercow said the ethics complaint was intended to distract attention from Daines’ actions in Washington, including his opposition to expanded health care and support for tax breaks for the wealthy.
Daines spokesperson Julia Doyle suggested it was Bullock who was distracted by the campaign. She said he should be focused on distributing federal virus relief money at a time when tens of thousands of people remain out of work and most of the money hasn’t been spent.
“Instead of staging photo-ops for campaign ads, the governor should be getting the money our congressional delegation secured out the door,” Doyle said.
Republicans have gone on Twitter to raise similar accusations of using testing centers as campaign props against Democratic Lt. Gov Mike Cooney, who faces Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte in the race to succeed Bullock.
A Cooney spokesperson did not respond directly to the GOP accusations but said Cooney had been working with Bullock "to protect Montanans from an unprecedented public health and economic crisis.”
Republicans also filed a complaint against Cooney in May after he participated in a campaign-related conference call hosted by the Democratic Governors Association in his state office. Cooney’s campaign called it an isolated incident that happened because he was between meetings on a tight schedule.
Peter Loge, professor of Media and Public Affairs and director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication at George Washington University, said candidates need to be careful that they don’t appear to be exploiting the pandemic crisis. And politicians that focus too much on their success battling the coronavirus take a risk: If the pandemic turns worse, so could their candidacy.
But Loge said candidates shouldn’t refrain outright from using their COVID-19 record on the campaign trail, given that crisis response is a crucial barometer to judge office holders.
“Suggesting candidates shouldn’t talk about their response to this crisis is a bit like saying we should judge a fire department based on how shiny their trucks are, not on how well they put out fires,” Loge said. “Any candidate who says, ‘ignore the crisis, check out this clever meme,’ doesn’t deserve our vote.”
Samuels reported from Helena.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @matthewbrownap