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In Ebola politics, a tale of two races

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey won’t say whether the party might look for leverage on the Ebola issue in the governor’s race. Concerning the Dayton administration’s plans, Downey said only that “I think people are looking for something more robust.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey won’t say whether the party might look for leverage on the Ebola issue in the governor’s race. Concerning the Dayton administration’s plans, Downey said only that “I think people are looking for something more robust.” (Staff photo: Mike Mosedale)

As he outlined out his administration’s plans to monitor travelers returning from Ebola-affected regions of Africa, Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday bristled at one reporter’s inquiries about the political considerations at stake in the matter.

“We wanted to remove this from politics. We’re eight days before an election,” said Dayton, flanked by a row of top health department officials, infectious disease experts and other officials who met over the weekend to promulgate the protocols.

“I don’t much stock in anything a politician says eight days before an election — myself included,” the governor added in a deft bit of campaign season self-deprecation.

But while political calculations may not have figured in the policy particulars, Dayton still reaped some political benefit from the above-the-fold story in the next day’s Star Tribune and ample coverage on the TV news, where the appetite for all things Ebola remains insatiable.

The administration’s Ebola plan – which calls for twice daily monitoring of all travelers returning from West Africa — is less aggressive in its use of quarantine measures than controversial policies adopted in New York and New Jersey. It also earned accolades from public health authorities outside the administration.

“There’s no politics. This is really the best science. This is the best way to go,” said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Likewise, Steven Miles, the chair of the U’s bioethics department and a vocal critic of “Ebola-hysteria,” praised the approach, which calls for home confinement in circumstances only for individuals deemed at high risk of infection.

More notably, perhaps, Dayton earned a shout-out on national TV from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been widely pilloried for imposing mandatory 21-day quarantines on returning health care workers. Many public health experts say such a measure is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

In the view of Michael Brodkorb, the political blogger and former Republican Party deputy chair, Dayton has effectively removed Ebola as a viable campaign issue in the governor’s race at a time when other candidates across the nation have been pushing the issue with greater fervor.

Brodkorb said he was struck by televised remarks from Christie, who earlier this month came to Minnesota to campaign on behalf of Dayton’s Republican opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.

“By all accounts, Dayton has had a very strong response on Ebola. Now the head of the Republican Governors Association goes on national TV and uses Dayton’s response as an example,” said Brodkorb.   “To me, that shows there’s not a lot of room for Republicans to message against Dayton on Ebola.”

Jeff Bakken, Johnson’s spokesman, said Johnson does have differences with Dayton on Ebola, noting that the challenger has called for the establishment “of a dedicated, separate facility in Minnesota to treat individuals stricken with Ebola” and, on a federal level, supports a temporary travel ban.

But Johnson’s campaign has not emphasized those differences in either its advertisements or campaign releases. On Tuesday, when Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey unveiled the party’s last week media blitz on Johnson’s behalf – “7 Days and 7 Reasons to Stop Mark Dayton” – Ebola did not earn a mention.

Asked afterward, Downey would not say whether the party might still look for leverage on the Ebola issue. In terms of Dayton administration’s plans, however, Downey was relatively modest in his critique, saying only that “I think people are looking for something more robust.”

In Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race, it has been a much different story.

This week, Republican candidate Mike McFadden — who has called for a temporary ban on travelers from Ebola-affected nations from entering the United States — launched a radio spot hammering incumbent DFLer Al Franken on the issue.

The ad claims that Franken has failed on the “very real” threat to America’s safety, using Franken’s flubbed response to a question about the proposal as evidence.

That attack is mild compared to an anti-Franken mailer put out by the Republican Party of Minnesota this week. The mailer pairs a photo of Franken with an ominous image of a man in a hazmat suit and the words, “How concerned is Al Franken about Ebola? He’s not. Over 4,000 people have died from Ebola in Africa. NOW THIS DEADLY DISEASE IS IN AMERICA!”

“The purpose of that mail piece is to create a climate of fear about Ebola and connect Al Franken to doing nothing about this terrible disease,” said Brodkorb. He characterized the mailing as the most aggressive he has seen this campaign season.

Brodkorb said the Ebola issue could pay off for McFadden, particularly if additional cases of the disease surface before Election Day and thus pump up the level of public anxiety.

McFadden is not the only Republican banking that Ebola is a winning issue. According to a nationwide survey of political ad buys from Kanter Media, the number of ads invoking “Ebola” spiked dramatically in the period from October 21 to 25, with nearly double the mentions of the ads aired over the prior month.

The survey found that Ebola ads are playing a particularly prominent role in competitive Senate races, having been aired in five of the Senate’s six closest contests.

While most of those buys are in support of Republican candidates, it was a Democrat — incumbent Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor — who launched the first salvo, airing an ad in August that criticized his Republican foe for budgets cuts that hurt the fight against the disease.

In Minnesota, however, Ebola as campaign issue has been confined principally to the U.S. Senate race.

DFL Chairman Ken Martin — who dismissed McFadden’s use of Ebola as an act of political desperation — said he is unaware of other races in the state in which Ebola has played prominently.

The issue has surfaced in one closely contested House race, where Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, made some waves with his views on Ebola at candidate forum. In his remarks about the importance of defending Second Amendment rights, Green cited accounts of alleged plans by radical Muslims “to infect their own soldiers with Ebola and get them to cross the southern border.”

The efficacy of Ebola as a campaign issue, however, is far from clear.

Despite a near constant drumbeat of cable news coverage, a Gallup poll showed that Ebola was listed as a top issue by just 5 percent of those surveyed. That placed the disease well behind the traditional voter concerns as the economy, dissatisfaction with government and employment.

A Star Tribune poll this week found that less than 20 percent of likely Minnesota voters were “somewhat” or “very” worried about personal Ebola risks.

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