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Bomb scare no ‘October surprise’ in midterms

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz laid blame on the media for its coverage of the suspicious packages. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The left condemned President Donald Trump for inciting violence against the media. The right scoffed, and called the bomb scare a false flag.

But even as authorities discovered more suspicious packages on Thursday — including two sent to former Vice President Joe Biden — the needle in congressional races across the country has hardly budged.

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Despite cable television coverage and #fakebombs trending on Twitter, Democratic candidates on Thursday were still pinning their fundraising appeals to health care, while Republicans were rallying base voters around taxes and the threat of impeachment.

The prospect of an “October surprise” has loomed over both parties for months, and not without reason. In 2016, the WikiLeaks release of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked emails, and FBI Director James Comey’s reopening of Clinton’s email investigation, upended the final days of the presidential campaign. In the 2014 midterms, campaigns were forced to contend with an Ebola outbreak in Dallas and claims of ISIS slipping combatants across the border.

But the bomb scare?

“Nah,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “Every day is another form of political Novocain. It’s like having needles put in your teeth and you finally get adjusted to it.”

Even in New York, he said, where police on Thursday removed a possible suspicious package addressed to the actor and activist Robert De Niro, Sheinkopf said, “New Yorkers are kind of nonplussed by the whole thing … A building collapses in New York and the people keep going.”

The impact of the suspicious packages could change significantly if one detonates, especially if someone is hurt or killed. But the current political effect appears to be impressionistic: Democrats believe public interest in the packages could add weight to their arguments about restoring civility in Washington — while campaigning explicitly on more traditional issues.

In Nevada, Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democrat bidding to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller, warned in a fundraising blast Thursday of “more extremists on the Supreme Court. Millions more without health care. Huge cuts to Medicare.” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) began running Facebook ads casting her Republican opponent, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, as beholden to “dark money special interests.”

With campaigns focused on early voting and base turnout, the FBI’s investigation of suspicious packages has been relatively muted.

“It’s irrelevant to voters’ considerations about whether or not they like or hate Donald Trump, and that’s really the heart of the matter,” said John Thomas, a Republican media strategist involved in House and Senate races in multiple states. “The only caveat is, as we learn more about who perpetrated the crime, that may change the story.”

For now, Thomas said, “We’re kind of already moving on. It’s not in voters’ top consideration sets: It’s not a world war, it’s not relating to a dinner table issue and it probably does not change your opinion of Donald Trump.”

Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist working on House races in California, said of the discovery of suspicious packages, “It just happened, so I feel like it hasn’t soaked in.”

Still, Jacobson said it is “plausible that it does have an impact.”

“I think the unprecedented political animosity that Donald Trump has infused in this country is unparalleled, it’s not normal, and the vitriol that he has cemented in this election cycle is not good for anyone,” he said. “I do think that voters are going to approach the polls with the mindset that we have a president who is sowing discord across this country.”

Donald Trump

The packages containing potential explosive devices discovered this week have all been sent to public figures who have been the subject of Trump’s vitriol, including Hillary Clinton, former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and former Attorney General Eric Holder. A package addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan at CNN resulted in the evacuation of the cable network’s employees from its offices in New York.

Trump, who recently praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) for body slamming a reporter in 2017, called for unity on Wednesday, while his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, rebuked efforts to associate his rhetoric with the suspicious packages.

Trump himself said on Twitter on Thursday, “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News.”

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who is bidding to survive a fierce challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke in Texas, laid blame on the media, too, for its coverage of the suspicious packages. “The media’s doing what the media does, which is any narrative they can twist against Trump, they will do so,” Cruz told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

But the bomb scare was hardly first on Cruz’s — or Hewitt’s — mind, coming only after Cruz lit into O’Rourke for his association with progressive Democrats and donors and for his views on immigration. By the end of the interview, it was back to the traditional script.

“We’re seeing an economic boom throughout Texas and throughout the country that is incredible,” Cruz said. “And so we simply have to tell the truth, talk about policies that work and make a difference in people’s lives.”

McCaskill and Hawley disagreed sharply about provocative political rhetoric at the beginning of a debate Thursday, though the question wasn’t directly related to the mailed bombs. Hawley condemned the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder and other Democrats, saying he was concerned about the culture of “incivility and confrontation and even outright violence” in the country. McCaskill criticized Hawley for laying the blame entirely with Democrats, saying there is a problem on “both sides” and it was necessary to “turn down the temperature.”

“There’s incredible incendiary rhetoric used by the president at his rallies from time to time,” McCaskill said. “We all know that. I’m not blaming it all on him but how can you get through this question without acknowledging it?”

Speaking to reporters after the debate, Hawley said there was a difference between Trump’s talk at rallies and “language of confrontation and violence.”

Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a senior adviser to his reelection campaign, was in Missouri to campaign with Hawley following the debate. She said the president wasn’t to blame for the bombs sent to Democratic leaders any more than Bernie Sanders was to blame for the gunman who shot Rep. Steve Scalise being a past supporter of the senator’s. But she also said she didn’t expect it to alter the midterm trajectory with voters.

“I don’t know if that is going to impact people that much, honestly,” she said before touting the president’s economic record. “I don’t know how much that impacts things, but I think people are on both sides motivated.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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