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Paycheck program hits the campaign airwaves

Pandemic rescue measure touted and attacked in Senate battlegrounds

The federal response to the coronavirus has become a cudgel in some battleground Senate races, including the one in Montana to unseat GOP Sen. Steve Daines.
The federal response to the coronavirus has become a cudgel in some battleground Senate races, including the one in Montana to unseat GOP Sen. Steve Daines. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan federal package to rescue the pandemic-rocked U.S. economy this spring has morphed into a cudgel on the campaign trail in pivotal Senate races where outside groups and candidates have launched ads with sometimes veiled attacks on pieces of the law or its earlier iterations.

Montana, Maine, North Carolina and Iowa are among the high-profile and high-priced Senate contests where messaging has ramped up over a late March measure that established the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, providing small businesses with forgivable loans to meet payroll during COVID-19 shutdowns. 

An ad attacking Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who faces a tough reelection against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, says the incumbent voted in support of a “$500 billion slush fund to bail out big corporations.”

Majority Forward, the Democratic group behind the ad, said it was referring to a Senate GOP proposal for an exchange stabilization fund as part of the economic rescue effort. The ad did not mention the legislation, which is known as the CARES Act, specifically. The final version of the measure was approved by Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester, as well as Daines. 

“It’s disgusting to witness Democrat dark money groups politicize critical relief legislation that passed the Senate unanimously and has aided countless American workers during these challenging times,” said Jesse Hunt, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

But Democrats said members of their party had called for fixes to the legislation, including the forgivable loan program, which ultimately had bipartisan support.

“Democrats have been clear that this loan program is important and fought to ensure it was improved with increased transparency, stronger independent oversight, and more relief going to truly struggling small businesses and not giant corporate interests,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Maine controversy

In another Senate battleground, where GOP incumbent Susan Collins of Maine is in the fight of her career, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon appeared to criticize an early form of the paycheck rescue program, saying in an ad that “the support that was supposed to go to small businesses should actually go to small businesses, not big corporations.” In some instances, big companies, such as national restaurant chains, had been approved for such loans. 

Collins, meanwhile, has run ads touting her work in the Senate to help small businesses in the state. And on Tuesday, the Collins campaign attacked Gideon for her criticism of the program after public disclosures showed that the law firm where Gideon’s husband works received a loan. Gideon is heavily favored to win the state’s Democratic primary next week. 

“The firm where Sara’s husband works is one of more than 450 firms in Maine that received assistance from the program following the closure of courts in Maine,” Gideon campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle said in an email. “From when this crisis began, Sara has been clear that this is a time when Washington needs to put politics aside and do what’s best for workers and small businesses, not large corporations and the special interests. Unfortunately, as we’re still seeing today, that’s not what Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans have done.”

Democrat Amy McGrath, who is challenging McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who serves as Senate majority leader, leaped on the news that a business of the family of his wife, Elaine Chao, had secured a forgivable loan to push for an extension of additional unemployment benefits.

McConnell, whose seat is considered safe, noted Tuesday that neither he nor his wife has “anything to do with that business and didn’t know anything about it.”

Katharine Cooksey, a spokeswoman for the McConnell campaign, said the paycheck program had “saved thousands of jobs in Kentucky and across the country, and if anyone should know it’s Amy, whose former employer and campaign vendors took the same loans.”

Bipartisan loans

Firms tied to GOP candidates also got loans through the program. Republican John James, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan, is CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics, which received a loan, according to an Associated Press report

North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis attacked his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, in a news release Tuesday for having previously worked at a business that received a PPP loan. Cunningham had left the company by mid-March, before the loan program had been created. 

Tillis’ campaign also on Tuesday issued a news release saying the senator had “voted to extend the Paycheck Protection Program multiple times and worked across the aisle to reform it so that more North Carolina businesses could have access to its funding.”

Votes over the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic also popped up anew in the Iowa Senate race this week, where Majority Forward launched a new spot against vulnerable Republican incumbent Joni Ernst for voting for the “slush fund.”

It’s not likely to be the last ad of the campaign season on the subject.

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