Ebola Issue Takes Candidates Off the Trail

In the long campaign about nothing, Ebola has broken through. Now campaigns have to deal with it.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden Testifies At Special House Hearing On Ebola Outbreak

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

The presence in Washington of candidates from two of the most hotly contested Senate races underscores a new reality faced by campaigns across the country: the Ebola issue is real. 

Representatives Cory Gardner and Bruce Braley, the Republican candidate in Colorado and the Democratic candidate in Iowa, respectively, returned to Capitol Hill Thursday for a House hearing on U.S. efforts to control the Ebola outbreak, pulling themselves off the campaign trail for an issue that, in an election cycle devoid of substance, has broken through with the U.S. electorate. 

Sixty-five percent of people surveyed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday expressed concern about a "widespread epidemic occurring in the United States." Of that, 31 percent classified themselves as "very concerned." Only 41 percent approved of the way President Barack Obama is handling the response to Ebola, according to the poll. 

In Senate debates this week, the virus, which has been contracted by two people inside the U.S. and continues its rampant spread in West Africa, has emerged as another way for Republican candidates to nationalize the issues and, more importantly, bring President Barack Obama into the debate.  

"President Obama once again failed to lead and took a serious threat far too lightly," David Perdue, the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, said today in a statement. "I have no confidence in how the Obama administration has handled the Ebola crisis so far."

Democratic campaigns have worked to shift the focus to cuts to U.S. health and research budgets supported by Republicans.

"Democrats are supporting an aggressive response to protect Americans from Ebola and Republicans who cut funding for the CDC and our public health infrastructure have a lot to answer for," Justin Barasky, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in e-mail. 

Back-to-back infections of nurses that worked on a Texas patient, complaints about lax hospital safety and a commercial flight taken by one of the infected worker have added to concern that federal officials may not be able to contain the virus, despite earlier assurances the nation won’t face an Ebola epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says it will create medical SWAT teams to quickly respond to infections and expand national protocols for hospitals dealing with Ebola. 

For Democratic candidates who have worked painstakingly hard to separate their campaigns from Obama, the emergence of the virus in the public consciousness less than a month away from the election has added an unwelcome wrinkle to their final weeks on the trail. Increasingly the focus has turned to the White House, which has become consumed with dealing with the issue, all while deflecting calls for a single "czar" to lead the response and declining to implement a travel ban on the three West African countries at the center of the outbreak.

Travel restrictions have become a unifying theme for Republican candidates. Sixty-seven percent of individuals surveyed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday supported limiting entry to the U.S. by people from the countries at the center of the outbreak. Dozens of House and Senate lawmakers have called for the restrictions and at least 10 of the party's Senate candidates have done the same, including Gardner. 

"The trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning as the American public loses confidence each day with demonstrated failures of the current strategy," Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The ban is "not something we're considering," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday at his daily briefing. The reason, according to Earnest and echoed by the administration's top health officials, is that a ban could restrict the flow of personnel and equipment into the region, setting back efforts to counter the outbreak at its epicenter. It may also create problems for U.S. officials tracking individuals from the region. 

"If we were to put into place a travel ban or visa ban, it would create a direct incentive for individuals from those countries seeking to enter the United States underground," Earnest said. 

Still, the administration's position also creates an opportunity for Democrats to draw contrasts between themselves and a White House that has seen its approval ratings hit a record lows. Two House Democrats in close races, Nick Rahall of West Virginia and John Barrow in Georgia, called on the administration to impose flight restrictions.

"Our duty today is to make sure the administration is doing everything possible to prevent the spread of Ebola within the United States," Braley said in his opening statement. Braley said he is "greatly concerned" that the administration "did not act fast enough in responding in Texas." 

Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, did not rule out travel restrictions during the House hearing, but he also laid out in detail the central components of the U.S. effort to counter the virus so far. He also reiterated that the chances of a full blown outbreak in the U.S. is limited. "We remain confident that Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States," Frieden told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

At the White House, Obama has canceled two days of scheduled travel, conducted a series of calls with foreign leaders and U.S. lawmakers and pressed international partners to add resources to the effort.  The White House has stated publicly since the emergence of the virus in the U.S. that politics would play no role in the response. But in the wake of Braley's criticism during the hearing, Earnest provided a helpful quote for the Democratic Senate hopeful to take back to the campaign trail. 

"Mr. Braley is someone who has a reputation for being able to speak truth to power regardless of whether they're in the same party," Earnest told reporters.

With assistance from Alex Wayne and Kathleen Hunter