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Democratic groups to spend millions hitting Trump over coronavirus response

President Trump speaks during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House. Trump said Americans should avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people and stop eating out at restaurants and bars as the U.S. intensifies its fight against the coronavirus outbreak. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)

A Democratic super PAC said Tuesday it would spend $5 million on digital advertising flaying President Trump for his response to the novel coronavirus, one of several groups that planned to devote resources to this type of messaging.

The campaign from Pacronym — a political action committee affiliated with the nonprofit group Acronym — represents the first major pivot to coronavirus-related advertising fewer than 250 days from the election.

It is a bet that the pandemic, which is also causing a deep economic downturn, will be the defining issue of the campaign.

“This is a public health issue and a national security issue, but it’s also a public policy issue and thus a political one,” said Tara McGowan, the founder and chief executive of Acronym, whose board includes veteran Democratic operatives like David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 bid.

McGowan said it was critical for outside groups like hers to exact a political price on Trump as his possible Democratic opponents, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), aim to project leadership by staying above the fray.

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Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, responded by criticizing Biden’s role in the response to the 2009 swine flu outbreak, saying, “it is laughable that his allies would launch this attack when Americans can see for themselves through daily public briefings that President Trump and his team are on the case and have been so since before Joe Biden even woke up to the situation.”

Other Democratic-aligned political action committees were preparing to step up their efforts as well.

American Bridge — which has been running a coronavirus-related advertisement in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — said it would soon cut an additional ad on “Trump’s incompetence,” including “clips of Trump himself downplaying the crisis.”

“Our job is to hold Donald Trump accountable, and we have no plans to let up, particularly with a focus on economic issues as we’ve done to date,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, which announced this month it would begin backing Biden in key swing states as he aims to lock up the Democratic nomination. “But as this crisis unfolds and the country experiences the consequences of his incompetence, we’re not going to give him a pass for bungling the government’s response to this pandemic.”

Additional groups were seeking to tie the issue to critical Senate races. The liberal group Protect Our Care has been running an ad this month against Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R) that connects his opposition to the Affordable Care Act to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Too many Montana families go to sleep at night worried about health care, coverage, costs, now the fear of coronavirus,” the ad’s narrator says. “That doesn’t worry Steve Daines. He voted to eliminate protections for 425,000 Montanans with preexisting conditions.”

Brad Woodhouse, the executive director of Protect Our Care, said, “We are going to connect our health-care work to the administration’s failure to prepare for and manage the coronavirus outbreak.”

In response, Daines’s campaign manager, Shane Scanlon, criticized efforts to “use the coronavirus as a political weapon.”

The new advertising from Pacronym will run across digital platforms, including Facebook and Google, and will target audiences in five states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona.

The focus on these states is part of the organization’s “Four is Enough” campaign, which concentrates on reaching voters in key battleground states. McGowan said in November her organization was prepared to spend $75 million to blunt Trump’s advantage in online spending.

Ads will promote news articles and fact-checks about the response to the pandemic. And the posts will push videos and other material highlighting actions taken by Trump affecting the country’s preparedness, as well as the president’s public comments as he responded to the pandemic. Already the group has run a handful of ads about the lack of tests for the novel virus.

The super PAC planned to spend $2.5 million through the end of April, in the first wave of coronavirus-related advertising ultimately expected to total $5 million through July.

There are ethical dilemmas involved in conducting political advertising during a health crisis, said Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It’s a very fine line between ensuring that the president has the legitimacy to speak authoritatively on what Americans must do in order to be safe, and the very real and legitimate questions to raise regarding how the president has handled this crisis given that he’s on the ballot in November,” Kreiss said.

McGowan said her organization was weighing ethical considerations in deciding on the substance of the advertising and would heed whatever recommendations the technology companies issued about coronavirus-related content. She also said the posts would not amplify inaccurate statements made by the president.

Technology giants, including Facebook and Google, on Monday said they were coordinating efforts to combat fraud and misinformation about the virus. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said the platform was offering unlimited advertising to the World Health Organization and pledging $10-million matches for several online fundraisers but had yet to restrict advertising by other groups unless it violated the platform’s advertising policies.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.