A Republican running for Congress in Northeastern Pennsylvania is airing TV commercials titled “Make China Pay.”

Another GOP congressional candidate, in the Lehigh Valley, claims his rival “makes millions doing business in China.”

And a Republican running for state attorney general is circulating a petition with the message “hold China accountable” superimposed over a Chinese flag.

As President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign shapes up as a referendum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that has followed, he has repeatedly pointed the finger at the Chinese government for letting the virus spread — never mind his own administration’s well-documented slow response.

The Trump campaign and pro-Trump groups are spending millions on ads in Pennsylvania and other states portraying Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as soft on China, where the outbreak originated. The campaign arm for Senate Republicans sent a memo advising candidates to follow a similar script, Politico reported last month: If asked whether Trump is at fault for the crisis that has led to tens of thousands of U.S. deaths and a cratering economy, candidates are advised not to dwell on defending Trump, but rather to “attack China.”

And ahead of Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary — which was postponed from April because of the pandemic — Republicans running down-ballot in federal and state races are using similar rhetoric, staying on message with the president.

The political strategy could work for local Republicans facing an American public that has soured on China. About two-thirds of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of China, up almost 20 percentage points since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, according to a Pew Research Center survey in March. And a Morning Consult poll published this month found that 73% of American adults believe the Chinese government is at least “somewhat” responsible for the U.S. death toll. About 60% said the Trump administration deserved some blame.

For its part, the Biden campaign has blasted Trump for “praising the Chinese” as “the coronavirus spread across the world.”

Trump for a time liked to refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus" — even as the World Health Organization and others warned against such rhetoric as Asian Americans are facing increasing xenophobia.

The Chinese government “is an easy identifiable bad guy in this,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Pennsylvania GOP consultant. “And I hope while we’re having this debate, we all understand it’s about China the country, and not people from China or Americans from Chinese descent.”

Campaigns always want to try to stay on the offensive, he added, so Republicans would rather go after “the bad Chinese communists” than defend the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis.

In Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, Republican Jim Bognet has been airing TV commercials filmed from the site of his family’s construction business in Hazleton, which he says was “booming” until the pandemic hit.

“The Chinese lied to us,” Bognet says in the ad. “They tried to cover up coronavirus. When I’m your congressman, we’ll make China pay — for the lies they told, the jobs they stole, and the lives we’ve lost. I’m with President Donald Trump. We will make American great again.”

Bognet is running in a six-candidate GOP primary in the Northeast Pennsylvania district, which is represented by Democrat Matt Cartwright. Trump carried the district by almost 10 percentage points in 2016.

In the Lehigh Valley-based 7th Congressional District, Republican Dean Browning has paid for Facebook ads highlighting his GOP primary rival’s business in China, saying Lisa Scheller “makes millions” there. The ads also point to a news article about Scheller’s 2018 testimony to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative regarding the Trump administration’s proposed tariffs on Chinese imports.

Scheller — CEO of the Schuylkill County manufacturer Silberline, which makes aluminum effect pigments used in automotive paints, plastics, and other products — warned in her testimony that the tariffs would hurt her company and threaten jobs.

Browning’s ad says Scheller “defended China while attacking President Trump’s trade policies.” Browning, the narrator says, "will put America first, stand up to China, and always support President Trump.”

The Scheller campaign called Browning a “failed liberal career politician” who, as a Lehigh County commissioner, “sided with liberal Democrats” to raise taxes and increase spending.

The winner of the primary will run against Democratic Rep. Susan Wild in the general election.

A Facebook ad paid for by Republican congressional candidate Dean Browning. He is running against Lisa Scheller in the June 2 primary.
Browning Campaign
A Facebook ad paid for by Republican congressional candidate Dean Browning. He is running against Lisa Scheller in the June 2 primary.

Anti-China rhetoric has also emerged in state-level races.

Heather Heidelbaugh, a Republican running uncontested in the primary for attorney general, started a petition to “hold China accountable for the damage it has caused the United States." It says she “supports suing China for damages regarding their handling of the coronavirus.” Her campaign has promoted the petition in Facebook ads, and the Pennsylvania GOP shared it on the social media platform late last month.

Missouri and Mississippi filed lawsuits against the Chinese government last month, though Congress has restricted litigation against foreign governments. The Missouri lawsuit also names the Communist Party of China as a defendant.

Heidelbaugh will face Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, in the general election.

A Facebook ad paid for by Republican Heather Heidelbaugh's campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general.
Heidelbaugh campaign
A Facebook ad paid for by Republican Heather Heidelbaugh's campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general.