| Steven R Hurst |
WASHINGTON (AP) – Only four people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the US but the fearsome disease has become a dominant issue in midterm elections less than two weeks away.
Republicans, who are hoping to win back the Senate majority, have seized on public worries that the virus could spread in the United States to slam the Obama administration’s response. Democrats have accused the Republicans of fear-mongering, but a few have joined in the criticism as a way to distance themselves from President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings are just a tick over their lowest ever for his six years in the White House.
An Associated Press-GfK poll found the disease is at the top of voters’ minds as Election Day approaches, with 74 per cent saying it is a very or extremely important. And likely voters aren’t happy with the administration’s response, as 56 per cent expressing disapproval. Concerns deepened with the news this week that a fourth person had been diagnosed with the virus in the country – a doctor who had recently returned to New York City from Guinea, where he had been treating Ebola victims.
“Fear is a powerful, powerful instinct and to the degree it can be manipulated, both parties are going to do it,” said James Riddlesperger, a political scientist at Texas Christian University.
Sen Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat facing a tough battle to keep her seat, recently broke ranks with her party to join her Republican challenger in calling on Obama to temporarily ban the travel of non-US citizens from affected countries in West Africa. That switch came just days after Hagan said such a tactic “is not going to help” unless it is part of a broader strategy.
The government has refused to consider such a ban, though authorities limited entrance by travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to five American airports.
Hagan’s North Carolina seat is one of six the Republicans need to take to assume the Senate majority, the biggest prize in the Nov 4 elections. If the Republicans take the Senate, they would have control of both houses of Congress, crushing Obama’s chances of advancing his legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.
Other vulnerable Democratic senators have lashed out at Republicans.
Louisiana Sen Mary Landrieu, whose bid for a fourth term is endangered in the heavily Republican state, called on her opponent and other Republicans to stop whipping up fear and to “spend a little more time trying to fashion solutions”.
Her challenger, Rep Bill Cassidy, has backed the idea of a travel ban and accused Obama of “feckless leadership” on a problem that poses an immediate danger. He and other Republican candidates have especially been critical of Obama’s appointment of a Democratic operative and insider to serve as the point person to coordinate the government response.
At a debate in New Hampshire, Republican challenger Scott Brown lambasted Sen Jeanne Shaheen for not joining him in backing the travel ban idea. Shaheen shot back that Brown is fear-mongering by trying to tie the issue to the need for greater US border security.
Last week, Obama announced a push for a faster federal reaction to new cases in the country after health officials acknowledged that they should have sent more people to Dallas when the first person was diagnosed with Ebola in the US. The patient, Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, died Oct 8 and two nurses caring for him were infected.
In the first test for the new strategy, federal Ebola response squads – likened to public health SWAT teams – were rushed to New York City after the doctor was confirmed to have the virus.
At a hearing Friday in the House of Representatives, Republicans – and some Democrats – pressed on with their criticism over what they saw as the Obama administration’s failure to be prepared for the disease’s incursion into the country.
“I think you ought to hand your resignation in,” Republican Rep John Mica told Dr Nicole Lurie, assistant health and human services secretary for preparedness and response.
Lurie defended the government’s policies and assured lawmakers that a large-scale outbreak of Ebola is unlikely in the country.
“There is an epidemic of fear, but not of Ebola, in the United States,” she said.