They weren’t dueling press conferences exactly, though they were sequential.
At midday Wednesday, DFL Chair Ken Martin held a media event to accuse the state GOP and its chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan of flouting social distancing guidelines and rules meant to halt the spread of COVID-19. It included a PowerPoint presentation with multiple photos of Carnahan along with GOP candidates campaigning indoors, sans masks and without maintaining space between themselves and other people.
Skepticism of the threats from the virus and objections to governmental restrictions has a clear partisan tint, both in Minnesota and around the country, and masklessness has become a common feature of GOP events.
Not long after, Carnahan held her own event, during which she accused the DFL and its candidates of not condemning — and therefore encouraging — the rioting and looting that returned to Minneapolis last week, a message that mirrors national and state ads sponsored by Republicans against Democratic candidates.
In a span of two hours, the events outlined the major campaign themes the DFL and the GOP will be trying to exploit over the next two months. They also said a lot about the willingness of the parties to troll each other.
The DFL press release came first touting a Zoom press conference “on the Minnesota Republican Party’s refusal to take and enforce basic safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which jeopardizes the health of their fellow Minnesotans and the ability of businesses and schools to safely reopen.”
The Minnesota GOP followed with a description of their own event that sounded familiar: “This call will be regarding the Minnesota DFL’s refusal to take and enforce basic safety precautions to prevent the continued destruction of our cities, which jeopardizes the health of their fellow Minnesotans and the ability of businesses to safely reopen and parents to feel safe sending their kids to school.”
The topics are certainly serious. And both party chairs expressed seemingly heartfelt feelings about them. But it’s campaign season, and both are charged with winning elections at a time when the pandemic and law-and-order messages have become major themes of the 2020 campaign nationally and in Minnesota.
Polls show that President Trump’s response to the pandemic isn’t highly regarded by a majority of Americans and that concern about the virus is high. So condemning Carnahan, and in turn Trump, for not practicing COVID safety doesn’t harm Democratic campaigns.
Those same polls show that crime is not a major issue on the minds of American voters, with just 8 percent citing it when prompted. Yet state and national Republicans are trying to make it one with TV ads and mailings.
At the DFL event, Martin said Minnesotans and Americans have stepped up to make sacrifices to help control the spread of the coronavirus, including business disruptions and social distancing, and health care workers putting themselves in the path of the virus.
“We do this to ensure that things can still function. We do this to save lives. We all make these sacrifices because it’s our patriotic duty to our fellow Americans to keep them safe,” he said. “Unfortunately, Jennifer Carnahan, Minnesota Republicans and the Trump campaign are not willing to share the responsibility to halt the spread.”
He was especially critical of events like bus tours that featured people going from town to town, holding multiple events without practicing social distancing.“The Minnesota Republican party’s unsafe events could be spreading COVID-19 across the state, landing people in the hospital and even killing them,” he said.
Martin was accompanied by two people who gave medical gravitas to what was otherwise a political event. Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, described research that indicates that cloth masks commonly worn by non-health professionals keep infectious people from spreading the virus. There are also some indications that they have some effect on reducing infections from other to mask wearers.
And Andy Slavitt, the former Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said he doubts that GOP party leaders and candidates are unaware of the health recommendations or the emergency orders regarding indoor mask wearing.
“This is the perfect storm of everything people shouldn’t do,” Slavitt said, “going from place to place with no knowledge of whether or not you’re sick, meeting with people many who are not young, who are vulnerable.”
And because of the long incubation periods and the lack of effective contact tracing, few know where they became infected with COVID-19 or where they might have spread the virus. “This means that in addition to honoring our individual liberties, we should also be having conversations about our responsibility to others,” he said.
An hour later, Carnahan followed with the GOP event, repeating themes she expressed last week after returning from President Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House.
“Our country is at an absolute crossroads right now and voters have an important decision to make,” she said, posing that decision as a choice between “the safety, security and well-being of America’s families, businesses and communities” and the “lawlessness that has taken over our state for most of the summer.”
She termed Joe Biden’s candidacy as dangerous because he has failed to condemn radical groups like antifa. “If Joe Biden wins, this country will see a leader who stands behind these unlawful riots, burning of our buildings, destruction of our small businesses and continued anarchy,” she said.
The two events also showed that political people are going to say what political people are going to say. Regardless of the questions asked, they get back to their own messaging.
At the GOP event, Carnahan was asked about her seeming aversion to wearing face coverings at political events. The GOP chair said the photos featured in the DFL PowerPoint did not include times when she does wear masks, such as at airports, in public places and going in and out of her dentist.
She said masks and sanitizer are offered at GOP events and that she might have taken it off to speak or pose for photos. And she rejected a suggestion that not wearing masks is a partisan statement. “To me it’s not a partisan issue, it’s an individual issue,” she said.
She then steered the conversation back to her topic. “But it seems very disingenuous that Chair Martin would go after the party and talk about us not following laws and protocols when they let our cities burn to the ground every single day and don’t seem to blink an eye on the impact it has on those communities.”
When Martin was asked at his event about the GOP accusation that DFLers, especially elected officials, are not condemning rioting and looting, Martin was having none of it.
“The Republicans are just trying to avoid facing the ugly truth that they’re putting lives at risk to win elections,” Martin said. “I’m the chair of the party. You don’t see me out there campaigning without a mask, you don’t see me leading riots or looting or engaging in civil unrest that’s happening. But Jennifer Carnahan is the chair of her party and is out there doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing.”