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Vulnerable Republican senators leave Trump out of campaign ads

Battle for control of the Senate
Battle for control of the Senate 07:48

While vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection this year have avoided criticizing President Trump, most are not mentioning their relationship with him in campaign ads, choosing instead to highlight their legislative efforts to help Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats are targeting moderate Maine Senator Susan Collins, who's running for her fifth term, in part because of her state's disapproval of Mr. Trump. Lately, her campaign has been pouring cash into advertisements highlighting her work on the Paycheck Protection Program, which focused on helping small businesses pay their employees after they were required to close in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Since the end of March, Collins' campaign has reserved almost $6 million in television ad buys, according to Kantar/CMAG Data. Nine of the ads focus on her bipartisan work to draft the P.P.P. and pass the C.A.R.E.S Act, the economic relief bill that established the PPP. At the same time, her digital presence on Facebook has touted PPP and what she "delivers" for Maine. None of the campaign material brings up Mr. Trump.

In November, Collins will likely face Maine's speaker of the state House of Representatives, Democrat Sara Gideon, who has posted strong fundraising and has released an ad of her own about where the federal response to the coronavirus has fallen short. 

Polling obtained by CBS News from the conservative firm Moore Information conducted at the end of May shows more voters approve of Collins' coronavirus response than Mr. Trump's and suggests slightly more voters favor Collins over Gideon.

"Senator Collins has stepped up in a critical way to fight for Mainers most affected, and her leadership on the Paycheck Protection Program is a huge asset to Maine small businesses," the chairman of the Republican Senate campaign arm, Senator Todd Young, told CBS News. 

Collins is not alone among vulnerable Republicans framing their record as distinct from Mr. Trump and showcasing their work in the Senate or with home-state governors. 

Senators Cory Gardner, of Colorado, and Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, are also taking this approach. Gardner released an ad with praise from Colorado's Democratic governor, Jared Polis, and Tillis released a digital ad urging a united front in dealing with the pandemic.

On Facebook, Gardner also focused on the need to keep Republicans in control of the Senate, and while he utilizes a number of Republican senators in his messages, he does not mention the president. The last ad launched featuring Mr. Trump appears to have been released before the pandemic struck. 

Republican pollster David Winston told CBS News on the strategy that "in a crisis like this, most voters are focused on getting things done and want to see the parties working together." 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, is embracing his relationship with Mr. Trump. He even released an ad Wednesday full of the president's praise for him. But his campaign is also promoting the idea that he has worked with all presidents. Early in the crisis, his campaign released an ad touting his work in past crises with George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Mr. Trump. The ad even featured an image of McConnell sitting with Mr. Obama during the financial crisis. Campaign spokesperson Kate Cooksey noted that McConnell "has worked with presidents from both parties through moments of crisis to protect our nation and deliver for Kentucky."

Strategists say the incumbent senators often have some advantage because they're able to highlight the work they've done in office for their constituents, whereas challengers can only criticize.  At the same time, incumbents may also benefit from the free advertisement afforded by news coverage of the legislation they enact, one media analyst noted.

While some Republicans strive to avoid ads linking them directly to Mr. Trump, Democrats and anti-Trump groups have seized on their public inaction against him. In a nationally aired ad by Republicans for the Rule of Law in May, the group took aim at McConnell, McSally, Gardner and Collins for not speaking out against Mr. Trump. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project has also focused not just on the president but senators it calls his "enablers."

Two notable exceptions to the avoid-Trump strategy taken by campaigns in battleground states are Senators Kelly Loeffler, of Georgia, and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, of Alabama.

A woman in one of Loeffler's ads says, "Kelly Loeffler was a target from the get-go because she stood behind the president — especially against Planned Parenthood."

Loeffler is competing in a special election in November against several candidates including an ally of Mr. Trump, Congressman Doug Collins. In Alabama, Tuberville is running against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a runoff in July that will decide who will take on one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent Democrats, Senator Doug Jones, in November. Both candidates are touting the praise Mr. Trump has given them in their ads, and in Tuberville's case, the president's disdain for Sessions.

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