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2020 Daily Trail Markers: COVID-19 considered a top issue in GOP ads in just 2 battleground states

As U.S. cases of COVID-19 surge, filling up hospitals and setting new records, Republicans are tiptoeing around the pandemic on national and local airwaves. A review of the top issues addressed in television advertising in 11 battleground states reveals coronavirus ranked as one of the top five issues in GOP ads in only two states in the presidential race from September 1 through October 24, according to CBS News political unit associate producers Sarah Ewall-Wice and campaign reporter Nicole Sganga. Over 228,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19, and there were 88,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 9 million cases nationwide. And yet, the coronavirus is a top-five issue in Republican ads in only two states, Michigan and Minnesota, according to a review of TV ads by Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group. There have been more than 167,500 cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,250 deaths in Michigan, while in Minnesota, there have been more than 142,000 cases and 2,400 deaths.

In Michigan, just under a third of Republican ad spending -- 32% -- in nearly eight weeks mentioned the pandemic. The top Republican TV ad messaging there was pro-Trump, which was included in 99% of ad spending. This comes as the most recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll shows 60% of likely Michigan voters believe President Trump set a bad example in his own battle earlier this month with COVID-19. Meanwhile in Minnesota, coronavirus appeared in 34% of GOP ad spending. In Minnesota, Republican ads in the state are emphasizing anti-Joe Biden messaging, which was on display in 98% of Republican ads over eight weeks. "Biden's plan means higher taxes on all income groups," claims the narrator in an ad aired in the state by the pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action. The pandemic also isn't rating among the top five issues Republicans are investing in on national network or cable advertising either. "There's no credible message there when it comes to Trump on COVID," said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman about the lack of GOP coronavirus messaging in the presidential race. "Down ballot, they can talk about their votes and what they did, but Trump doesn't have that. There's no narrative there." On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee poured another $9 million into its existing $14 million ad buy targeting senior citizens in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. "Attention, fellow seniors: This election will determine your Medicare premiums," one ad declares, before falsely accusing the Biden-Harris campaign of eliminating private insurance plans. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is highlighting the president's handling of the economy during commercial breaks.

While Republicans are keeping their distance from COVID-19 in their ads for the presidential race, Democrats have been leaning in hard on coronavirus TV messaging. The virus is a top five issue in every one of the 11 states reviewed: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. "You know what real leadership looks like? For Joe Biden it means listening to experts," says the narrator in an ad by Future Forward PAC, with an image of Dr. Anthony Fauci in it. More than $135.6 million was spent on messaging mentioning the pandemic, and in eight of the states, 50% of all Democrats' TV ad spending in the presidential race included coronavirus messaging from the start of September through October 24. In Michigan and Minnesota, it was upwards of 64%. COVID-19 was also a major issue for Democrats in national cable and network TV ads. The Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA is one of the biggest outside spenders in the presidential race on TV advertising in the general election. It's been running ads on the pandemic since the spring and its data in six battleground states continues to find voters trust Biden over Mr. Trump on dealing with the coronavirus. "Bad public health policy is bad politics and voters are on to this," said Guy Cecil on Wednesday. "They understand that coronavirus cases are rising. They hold the president responsible for it." The Biden campaign reflects Democratic coronavirus messaging on the airwaves during in-person stops on the campaign trail, staging socially distanced campaign gatherings and CDC-friendly "drive in" rallies. On Wednesday, the former vice president appeared in front of large graphs depicting COVID hospitalizations and warned the cases of COVID will be a "bigger wave of anything we've experienced to date."

Despite his opponents' attacks and the GOP's avoidance of COVID-19 messaging, the president's campaign hasn't completely been silent on the pandemic in its ads. In one ad first aired in mid-October, the narrator claimed, "President Trump is leading, attacking the virus head-on," and an earlier ad touted the president's recovery from COVID-19. On the campaign trail, the president rejects the reality of a COVID-19 uptick, dismissing it as a "fake news media conspiracy." "COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID," Mr. Trump remarked to supporters in Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday. "We have a spike in cases. Do you ever notice they don't use the word 'death?' They use the word 'cases.'" The president reprised misleading claims that increased testing has led to increased case numbers. "We're testing everybody. In many ways, I hate it." While testing more people does identify more cases, rates of positive tests are rising even faster. Experts say the surging numbers being seen in many states are due to an increase in illnesses, rather than an increase in testing, and hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients. "A safe vaccine is coming very quickly," Mr. Trump vowed Wednesday in Bullhead City, Arizona. "You are going to have it momentarily," he vowed, although pharmaceutical companies and the nation's leading doctors have offered no such guarantees.

FROM THE CANDIDATES

TRUMP-PENCE CAMPAIGN

Mr. Trump campaigned Friday in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, reports CBS News campaign reporter Musadiq Bidar. Ahead of his event in Wisconsin, Green Bay Packers legend Brett Favre announced he's voting for Mr. Trump. The President's son Eric Trump told FOX News that the president's Election Night plans could be moved from the Trump Hotel in Washington D.C. to the White House. "We're thinking about moving it, actually, over to - over to the White House. We're looking at that right now, and it's going to be a great night," Eric Trump said. Mr. Trump also told reporters before departing the White House on Friday morning that a determination for his Election Night party hasn't been made. "I know the mayor has shut down Washington D.C.," Trump said. "If that's the case, we'll probably stay here or pick another location." The president also said he's confident about his chances of winning in Texas, Florida and Ohio. "I will tell you that if you look around Florida, it's looking great. Florida's looking really great. Ohio is looking great. North Carolina is looking fantastic, actually. We think Pennsylvania's looking fantastic but that's a late vote," Mr. Trump said.

At his rally in Michigan, President Trump accused the Supreme Court of wanting to delay the election "for a long time." He also leaned heavily into his manufacturing, auto jobs, and economic argument for Michigan voters. The president's rally in Minnesota tonight had to be limited to 250 people to comply with state restrictions on large gatherings. Mr. Trump claimed 25,000 people want to be there at the rally "and they say you can only have 250 people, so they thought I'd cancel, well I'm not canceling."

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence returned Friday to Arizona for two campaign events. At rally number one in Flagstaff, Pence started out by talking about the economy. He usually begins by talking about defense and military, but on Friday, he focused on trade, manufacturing and GDP numbers at the top. Pence said the American economic comeback is underway and warned that Biden will shut it all down. He said European countries are shutting down again and added that Biden will shut down the economy if he wins. Meanwhile, Biden in Iowa said Friday that he's going to shut down the virus, not the economy. Pence said Biden believes we are in for a dark winter while Trump knows the best is yet to come. The VP told supporters that Arizona typically plays an outsized role in presidential elections but added that this year, voters in that state might be making the most important decision in the state's history when it comes to the general election. Pence urged supports to vote and do it early to get it out of the way. He also told the crowd to find undecided friends and family ask them who they think can bring the economy all the way back. And as the vice president asked the crowd to vote for congressional candidates and "retire Nancy Pelosi once and for all," supporters broke out into chants of "lock her up." Pence listened to the chants and smiled.

BIDEN-HARRIS CAMPAIGN

Four days before Election Day, Joe Biden embarked on the first three-state swing of his campaign, according to CBS News campaign reporters Bo Erickson and Adam Brewster. First stop was Des Moines, Iowa, where 270 days ago Biden left the night of the Iowa Democratic Caucus the fourth place finisher. Now he's hoping to flip the Hawkeye State to blue. He played up both his agrarian familiarity, mentioning break-even prices for crops, and his middle-class bona fides, exclaiming "It's about time that a guy or woman that graduated from a state university is able to sit in the Oval Office because if I'm sitting there you will be too!" The second stop was the Twin Cities in Minnesota, a reliably Democratic state for decades. This is his second general election trip to the state Mr. Trump narrowly lost last election, so before he departed Delaware Friday morning, he was asked if he felt concerned about his chances there. "No I'm not concerned," Biden replied, "I don't take anything for granted, we're gonna work for every single vote up until the last minute." And last on his travel log for the day he'll be in Milwaukee, his third general election trip to the state that Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not visit in the lead up to the election.

Senator Kamala Harris made her first visit to an emerging battleground state, Texas, on that state's last day of early voting, according to CBS News Campaign Reporter Tim Perry. The state has seen a surge of turnout as more voters have cast their ballots than the entire 2016 cycle in the state. "Today is the last day of early voting in Texas and you all have been doing your thing," Harris said while campaigning in Fort Worth Friday. "What did I hear? Was it 9 million people have voted so far? Early voting in Texas, 9 million? Now we know this is no time to let up on the pedal though." Harris also made stops in McAllen and Houston. She is joined in McAllen with former Democratic presidential candidates Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro. Harris is also touring the state with Texas Senate candidate MJ Hegar. Speaking in Fort Worth, Harris brought up president's controversial policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. "Everything is at stake," she told the Fort Worth crowd of about 300. "Let's talk about it in terms of these 545 babies who right now have been orphaned because of a failure of the US government to reunify them with their parents." Harris will continue to campaign throughout the weekend in typical red states, showing signs that Democrats have high expectations in these battleground states. Harris will campaign in Florida on Saturday and North Carolina and Georgia on Sunday. The day before the election, Biden, Harris and their spouses will partake in a statewide blitz in Pennsylvania.

BATTLEGROUNDS IN THE BATTLEGROUNDS

WISCONSIN - *WESTERN WISCONSIN*

In 2016, a total of 206 counties across the country that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 swung away to support Republican nominee Donald Trump. Wisconsin has 23 of these counties. More than a dozen of these counties are in western Wisconsin. Communities lining the banks of the Mississippi River helped turn Wisconsin Republican in the first presidential election since 1984, according to CBS News campaign reporters Adam Brewster and Nicole Sganga. These rural, overwhelmingly White and sparsely populated counties in the state's western edge are highly sought, in large part, for their lack of partisan loyalty at a time when Americans sit increasingly entrenched in Democratic and Republican camps. John Valentine, a 55-year-old from Viola, Wisconsin who works in maintenance, supported Mr. Obama in 2008, but regretted his decision because his health insurance costs then went up. He sat out 2012, but voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and is voting for him again this year. "He's a leader -- he's not afraid to tell people what needs to be said," Valentine said while packing up his car outside of a Walmart in Richland County. Mr. Obama won the county by 16.1 points in 2012, and Mr. Trump won it by 5.5 points in 2016. And while many of Wisconsin's small towns and cities in its southwestern corner drove up Mr. Trump's margins, most had not voted for Republicans in decades, said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "That was part of Trump's victory in the state, for sure -- to cobble together a lot of those small communities to overcome losses in other parts of the state," said Burden. "The communities also tend to skew older and with working-class roots, a critical base of support for Mr. Trump's 2016 victory offsetting smaller margins in the traditionally Republican suburbs. But Democrats reclaimed some of the territory in western Wisconsin in 2018. Governor Tony Evers carried five of the counties that Mr. Trump flipped, and Senator Tammy Baldwin won nine. Burden said that the president's message on trade, health care and illegal immigration resonated with voters four years ago, but some are "unsatisfied" with Mr. Trump's record. Read more from Brewster & Sganga about Western Wisconsin here.

STATE-BY-STATE

ARIZONA

The Arizona parents of Kayla Mueller - the American aid worker who died while in ISIS captivity during the Obama Administration - have become some of their state's most outspoken supporters of Mr. Trump, from appearing at the president's state of the union to delivering remarks at the Republican National Convention this year, reports CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin. But a group of more than three dozen people claiming to be friends of Mueller are now accusing the Trump campaign of "repeated exploitation of her name," condemning the president in a letter first reported by The Arizona Republic. "She just wanted the world to be a better place," Jenn Grove, an Arizona nurse who signed the letter, said in an email to CBS. "So to invoke her name in these partisan debates that are about shaming, finger-pointing and posturing is just wrong. Those things are the opposite of what Kayla lived to do and what she died for."

FLORIDA

Florida-based union members who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic are making their final push to get out the vote for Joe Biden days before the election, reports CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell. They're targeting infrequent voters -- who in some cases haven't cast a vote since 2008 -- and hoping that sharing their personal stories will help get more of them to the polls. With over 7.8 million votes already cast in Florida, where polls show Biden and Mr. Trump are virtually tied, hospitality and fast-food workers are trying to have one more conversation with some of the 6.6 million Floridians who are registered but haven't voted yet. "I tell them please go out to vote. If you don't want to go to vote, vote for me, because I need it for my kids. I need it for my life," said Francesca Clerizier, a 51-year-old mother of six who lost her job at Disney before joining UNITE HERE as a canvasser. High numbers of voters who did not cast a ballot in the last election are turning out in battleground states this year. In Florida, 25.8% of Democrats who have voted early in Florida so far did not vote in 2016, according to the Democratic elections data firm TargetSmart. Read more here.

MINNESOTA

According to data from the Minnesota Secretary of State's office, more than 1.9 million Minnesotans have requested an absentee ballot and more than 1.5 million absentee ballots have been accepted as of Friday. That number surpasses the total number of absentee ballots accepted in the 2016 general election, according to CBS News campaign reporter Jack Turman. A U.S. appeals court ruled Thursday night that absentee ballots received after Election Day must be segregated and those absentee ballots are at risk of being invalidated by potential future court decisions. Previously, there was a consent decree order in place that allowed absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day to be counted if received within a week after Election Day. In press calls on Thursday and Friday, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said that the court ruling states that ballots received after Election Day must be identified and segregated, but he argued it leaved open the question if those ballots will be counted or not. He emphasized that Minnesotans who have not voted should vote in person or drop off their mail-in ballot at a ballot drop box to ensure their vote counts.

NEVADA

Top supporters of Biden are slated to pour into Nevada in these final days before Election Day from neighboring California, a last-minute boost targeting a battleground state whose population has boomed in recent years from an influx of former Golden State residents, according to CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin. Harris' husband Doug Emhoff is stumping through the state on Friday. Former White House hopeful Tom Steyer and comedian Chelsea Handler, both Californians, are scheduled to campaign in Nevada on Saturday. And even California's Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, is expected to rally supporters in Northern Nevada on Sunday.

PENNSYLVANIA

There are now at least seven counties in Pennsylvania planning not to count mail ballots until the day after the election, reports CBS News Campaign reporter Zak Hudak. Their decisions, which could delay Pennsylvania election results longer than already anticipated, led Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to call on all counties in the state to begin processing mail-in ballots on Election Day. Elections officials in those counties say they don't have large enough staffs to run an in-person election while tabulating mail ballots, which take much longer to count. "Our decision is based on county staff and availability of people to work both the polls and start ballot processing," said Mike Belding, chair of the Green County commissioners, Boockvar said that those kinds of concerns are disingenuous because federal grants were available to help the counties staff up. She said four of the seven counties hadn't applied for them, and that private foundation funding remains available. Over 3 million Pennsylvanians have applied to vote by mail, about a third of the state's registered voters. Between the counties waiting to count mail ballots - Beaver, Cumberland, Franklin, Greene, Mercer, Monroe and Montour -- there are over 550,000 registered voters.

TEXAS

Texas has already surpassed the total number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, reports CBS News campaign reporter Adam Brewster. Data from the secretary of state released on Friday morning shows 9,009,850 Texans have voted. There were 8,969,226 votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. Texas is likely to soon pass 2016's turnout in terms of percentage of registered voters, too. So far 53.1% of registered voters have cast ballots in Texas in 2020, and 59.4% of registered Texans voted in 2016. Friday is the final day of early in-person voting in the Longhorn State. Separately, a federal appeals court issued a ruling on Friday that voters and poll workers do not have to wear masks at the polls. Earlier this week a lower court said face coverings should be required, but the appeals court on Friday blocked that decision.

CONGRESSIONAL COVERAGE

IN THE SENATE

ARIZONA

A handful Republican senators have fanned out across the country - both remotely and in-person - to buoy their fellow GOP incumbents in tough re-election bids. CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin says Senators Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Tim Scott and Rick Scott have all campaigned this week to boost Republican incumbent Senator Martha McSally in her race. Now McSally's campaign says Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will also head to Arizona to boost the Republican's bid to fend off Mark Kelly, her Democratic challenger. "It's great to have a testimony and a witness from others who see what the stakes are for Arizonans, to come in and be able to share what will happen should Mark Kelly get elected and allow Chuck Schumer to be in charge," McSally said Thursday, asked about the flood of GOP senators campaigning through the state.

IN THE HOUSE

ILLINOIS

Republican Congressman Rodney Davis isn't buying the polls that show Biden up big in his central Illinois district. Especially the internal Democrat one showing him up 13. "Anyone who knows my district knows that that cannot be accurate," Davis, a Trump campaign co-chair in Illinois, told CBS News political unit broadcast associate Aaron Navarro. "You look at President Trump in this district in 2016, from our internal polling he was never ahead, and he ended up winning my district by 5 points." In 2016, Davis won by closer to 20 points. In 2018, he won by 1. This year, Davis is facing a rematch with Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, a former teacher and nonprofit worker. The race has included bites of expected Illinois political mudslinging, Davis has ran ads looking to tie Londrigan to long tenured state House speaker Mike Madigan, Londrigan ran an ad calling it false. But at the center of it is the coronavirus and healthcare, a holdover issue of 2018 that Londrigan says has only been heightened by the coronavirus.

Both candidates have personal stories with healthcare, but see a completely different future for the Affordable Care Act. In 2009, Londrigan almost lost one of her sons due to a rare illness from a tick bite. After a medically-induced coma, he was able to recover. "Every single day I know what access to quality, affordable care means, because if we had not had access to that medical care, I would be a mom of two and not three," she said. She said the Affordable Care Act is a "first step" and would like to address the out-of-pocket pocket costs and expenses. In her debates and ads, she has consistently slammed Davis for the 11 votes he's taken on bills that would repeal it all or by part. "I take it personally, not just for my family, that Representative Davis has been on a mission to tear down the ACA," she said. "Voters need to vote for a representative who's going to protect their care. And that's why I got into the race."

Davis' wife is a 21-year colon cancer survivor. "This is personal to me," he said. Davis says he doesn't want to repeal the ACA without protections for preexisting conditions, but that his opposition to the act stems from constituent complaints about premiums being too expensive. He says using his "procedural or budget" votes to say he voted to get rid of pre-existing conditions, "that's just nothing but a lie." While the Trump administration's lawsuit against the ACA and lack of a replacement plan has put down ballot Republicans in a tight spot on the issue, Davis pointed to the American Health Care Act, which passed the GOP House in 2017 but failed in the Republican Senate. "I believe the Democrats have done a good job convincing a lot of Americans that the president hasn't had a plan. But it's not necessarily the president's job to have a plan. It's our job to create plans. We did that. We fell short," Davis said. He put that onus of action on the ACA on Congress, and not the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on the act one week after the election. "There is zero reason the Supreme Court should have any say in determining the outcome of the law that was passed legally and signed and has been implemented," he said.

Eight out of the 10 ads Londrigan's campaign has run this cycle mention preexisting conditions or healthcare. It's a continuation of her platform in 2018, but she says the foundation of volunteers she came into this year with is enough to overcome her 2,058 vote loss. Davis said the enthusiasm for Republicans in a presidential year will close the gap of enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats he saw in 2018. "The enthusiasm of people who are hostile to Trump and had 'Unseat Rodney Davis' stickers on their car before they even knew who was going to run against him, that hasn't changed," said University of Illinois political science professor Brian Gaines. "The marginal voters who aren't diehard partisans are going to be people who will stick with an incumbent. And I still think that's true. But I wouldn't bet my life savings on it, I think it's gonna be a very close result."

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