WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan federal package to rescue the pandemic-rocked U.S. economy this spring has morphed into a cudgel on the campaign trail in pivotal Senate races where outside groups and candidates have launched ads with sometimes veiled attacks on pieces of the law or its earlier iterations.
Montana, Maine, North Carolina and Iowa are among the high-profile and high-priced Senate contests where messaging has ramped up over a late March measure that established the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, providing small businesses with forgivable loans to meet payroll during COVID-19 shutdowns.
An ad attacking Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who faces a tough reelection against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, says the incumbent voted in support of a "$500 billion slush fund to bail out big corporations."
Majority Forward, the Democratic group behind the ad, said it was referring to a Senate GOP proposal for an exchange stabilization fund as part of the economic rescue effort. The ad did not mention the legislation, which is known as the CARES Act, specifically. The final version of the measure was approved by Montana's Democratic senator, Jon Tester, as well as Daines.
"It's disgusting to witness Democrat dark money groups politicize critical relief legislation that passed the Senate unanimously and has aided countless American workers during these challenging times," said Jesse Hunt, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But Democrats said members of their party had called for fixes to the legislation, including the forgivable loan program, which ultimately had bipartisan support.
"Democrats have been clear that this loan program is important and fought to ensure it was improved with increased transparency, stronger independent oversight, and more relief going to truly struggling small businesses and not giant corporate interests," said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.
In another Senate battleground, where GOP incumbent Susan Collins of Maine is in the fight of her career, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon appeared to criticize an early form of the paycheck rescue program, saying in an ad that "the support that was supposed to go to small businesses should actually go to small businesses, not big corporations." In some instances, big companies, such as national restaurant chains, had been approved for such loans.
Collins, meanwhile, has run ads touting her work in the Senate to help small businesses in the state. And on Tuesday, the Collins campaign attacked Gideon for her criticism of the program after public disclosures showed that the law firm where Gideon's husband works received a loan. Gideon is heavily favored to win the state's Democratic primary next week.