Ebola becomes an election issue

North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis called for a better Washington response to Ebola.

Story highlights

  • Republicans are seizing on the Ebola issue to make a case against Democrats
  • Michigan GOP Senate candidate: Obama "needs to lead"
  • Congress will hold an Ebola hearing on Oct. 16
The recent Ebola outbreak is becoming an issue in the competitive midterm elections.
Top Democratic and Republican campaign officials in Washington are uncertain about the political ramifications of Ebola's arrival in the U.S. and are grappling with how to respond.
But Republicans are seizing on the issue as an opportunity to again make the case that President Barack Obama isn't leading effectively. They're highlighting Obama's recent assurance that Ebola was "unlikely" to get to the U.S. and calling for the U.S. to impose new travel restrictions for those countries in Africa where the outbreak began.
It's all part of an effort to force their Democratic opponents to defend Obama's response to Ebola.
GOP officials have reason to believe their line of attack will resonate with voters. CNN has learned from sources at the NRSC, the national campaign organization for Senate Republicans, that the group's internal polling finds 60 percent of voters believe that if a single case of Ebola arises in the U.S., it should be treated as a major crisis by the federal government.
"Washington is broken," claimed an NRSC email. "The top-down approach championed by Democrats for decades (and controlled by them at the federal level in Washington) has shown itself to be completely unprepared and ill-equipped for 21st Century challenges."
Democrats have been supportive of the administration's efforts, but are pushing for a coordinated effort with other countries to prevent further spread of Ebola. Still, GOP candidates have picked up on the message.
Michigan Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land Friday called for a travel ban or other restrictions to ensure more infected people do not enter the country.
"I'm a mom. I have kids. People are concerned. Again, this is a safety and security issue," Land told Michigan Public Radio. She called on the president and her opponent, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, who she is trailing in most polls, to outline a federal response.
"The President needs to lead," Land said. "Congressman Peters needs to lead -- to come up with a plan to make sure we can deal with this."
A spokeswoman for Peters told CNN that Land is "desperate."
"It is sad Terri Lynn Land is now so desperate that she's trying to use a deadly virus as a political issue, and it's shameful," spokeswoman Haley Morris said. "Before playing politics with such a serious issue, Terri Lynn Land should explain why she pushed for the government shutdown last year, which hampered the CDC and our nation's emergency readiness."
In North Carolina, Thom Tillis, who is trying to unseat Democrat Kay Hagan in one of the most closely watched Senate races this year, also called for a travel ban from West African countries.
"It's time for Washington to take action to protect the American people," said Tillis, who many recent polls show is narrowly trailing Hagan.
A Hagan spokeswoman responded that Tillis's approach would not do enough.
"Kay believes the U.S. should work together with the international community to take a wide range of steps to fight this epidemic and prevent it from spreading," Sadie Weiner said in an email. "Travel restrictions may be one tool we can use, but they should be part of a broader strategy because simply sealing the borders to these countries won't make the crisis go away."
As far back as August, Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor tried to use the issue of Ebola against his opponent, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton. In a campaign ad, Pryor accused Cotton of voting against a 2013 bill that included money to respond to pandemics. But Cotton did support the final version that became law, according to an analysis by Politifact.
On Friday, Cotton signed a letter to Obama with fellow House Republicans from Arkansas urging him to consider a ban on flights to affected countries.
"The quality of our hospitals, we well as our talented doctors, is undoubtedly a draw for people with the means and will to come to the U.S. -- sometimes because exposure to Ebola in their own country and in spite of the risk to the health of Americans," the GOP congressmen wrote.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that at this point, the Administration is not considering imposing any travel ban.
In an interview on CNN Friday, the number two official with the Senate GOP campaign arm, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, said the U.S. needs to be "more aggressive" in screening people coming to the country and pointed to recent report that said the Department of Homeland Security is not equipped right now to deal with a pandemic.
"I don't think we're prepared as we should be," Portman said. "I think this is another example where the administration was not as engaged early on as they should have been and now we're playing catch-up."
Aides for both the House GOP and Democratic campaign committees tell CNN Ebola has not cropped up in House races at this point. But that could change as political campaigns in recent weeks have been quick to focus their messages on issues that are on voters' minds.
Soon after questions were raised about Obama's response to the terror group ISIS, and public opinion polls showed Americans were increasingly worried about an attack at home, Republican candidates began bringing up the issue.
The National Republicans Congressional Campaign Committee rolled out television commercials suggesting several Democratic candidates didn't support funding to respond to terrorists threats and they were "dangerous."
And though Congress is in recess for the final stretch before the midterm elections, a House committee announced on Friday that it will hold a hearing on the Ebola outbreak on Oct. 16.