How campaigns are adapting to coronavirus

Senate and House candidates across the country are transforming their campaigns into digital spaces as the threat of coronavirus throws the art of retail politics into uncharted territory.

Candidates have taken to virtual and tele-town halls in an effort to not only spread the word about their campaigns but to answer voters’ questions about the pandemic.

However, the changes have also led to questions about how the candidates will promote their campaign as the coronavirus consumes the news cycle, and how they will raise money in an unsteady economy.

The Trump administration recommended on Monday that people not gather in groups of larger than 10, a hindrance to campaigns driven by handshakes, photo ops and packed rallies.

Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) have encouraged campaigns to hold tele-town halls, virtual phone banking and Facebook Live conversations in lieu of public events and in-person fundraisers.

“We’re urging campaigns to follow the guidance of national experts and their local public health experts and make sure that they are continuing to connect with voters, but doing that safely,” a DCCC spokesperson told The Hill. “This is a rapidly-developing public health emergency, and we’re asking campaigns to keep the safety of their staffs, volunteers, and voters in mind. We are urging campaigns to err toward caution in all decision making.”

The NRCC issued guidance to its members on Saturday amid the crisis, advising members to continue fundraising, but to “be sensitive that your donors may have suffered financial losses during this pandemic,” asserting they should not directly fundraise off COVID-19.

The House GOP’s campaign arm also reminded lawmakers to be mindful not to use rhetoric that could be perceived as being in poor taste.

“The coronavirus is presenting a unique challenge for congressional campaigns nationwide. As President Trump and our leading health experts are fighting to defeat this virus, every campaign must exercise increased sensitivity on what is politically appropriate,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) wrote in a memo to members of the conference.

However, a number of down-ballot campaigns are struggling for media coverage as the coronavirus and the presidential race take up the airwaves.

“Aside from the top-tier Senate races, whose names we all know, down-ballot races rely most on earned media, and if there is wall-to-wall coverage not only nationally but also locally, then that is a very big hindrance to these campaigns to break through,” GOP strategist and former NRCC spokesman Matt Gorman told The Hill.

Longtime GOP strategist Doug Heye noted it presents a significant hurdle for candidates taking on incumbents looking to garner local media attention.

“It presents a real challenge, I think any candidate is now struggling to figure out how to get their message out, and when you’re a challenger it’s hard enough to break through in new cycles,” he said. “If you’re a challenger, what is your message on this that is going to really gain notice? And it’s hard to see what that is, at least in the short term.”

Heye also said the economic impact of the virus could prove problematic for fundraising efforts, noting the optics of asking supporters for money during a time of crisis.

“If this situation progresses in a way that we really look like Italy — and some of the charts on this are starting to really reflect that — then it becomes harder to do anything politically without a real backlash,” he said.

“We’re just starting to feel the effects of this and with restaurants closing and so forth. But as that takes hold, sending out that email of, ‘Hey, I need your $10, $25, $100, you know, that becomes harder to do without a backlash. And certainly, you’re not having big fundraising events. You’re not getting that VIP guests coming in to help you raise money at an event.”

Candidates have used virtual and issue-specific town halls with hopes of connecting with voters and garnering at least some media attention.

Republican Mike Garcia and Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who are both running in the special election for California’s 25th District on May 12, have both taken special measures, including virtual town halls.

“We are now doing virtual phone banking so people can phone bank from their home,” Kunal Atit, Smith’s deputy campaign manager, said. “We are moving events to essentially an exclusively digital format, and we’re no longer doing door to door canvassing but doing relational organizing.” 

Meanwhile, Smith has used her platform in the state Assembly to inform constituents about the work being done in the chamber to address state-level issues surrounding the virus. Smith announced on Monday that the body appropriated $1 billion to address the crisis.

“At this point, if you’re a public official, what you want to be is a trusted source of information for your constituents,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said. “If you’re running for an office you haven’t had before, it’s a lot tougher to be a challenger at this moment.”

South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison, who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), announced last week he was canceling his public campaign events and would switch to digital gatherings.

Name recognition or incumbency are added boosts to candidates running in a race at this moment.

Despite his status as a member of an American political dynasty, Senate candidate Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s (D-Mass.) campaign response to the virus has been one of the more unique ones so far.

Kennedy’s campaign, which has been heavily in-person and retail-focused, suspended all campaign activity last week and devoted its entire digital platform to communicate about the spreading virus.

On Sunday, the congressman took questions, along with physician and Massachusetts state Rep. Jon Santiago (D), from voters and constituents in his first virtual town hall on the crisis.

“We do expect that this is going to get worse before it gets better,” Kennedy said, speaking to viewers from Boston.

“In the meantime, I do want to urge everybody to engage in those practices that we need to engage in in order to keep ourselves and our community healthy,” he continued, seated next to a Boston Red Sox flag and with a Dunkin’ coffee at hand.

In addition to devoting his campaign’s digital resources to sharing information about the crisis, Kennedy also will use the email list for his Senate campaign to raise funds to help those impacted by the outbreak.

The congressman’s primary opponent, incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), has also put a focus on combating the virus.

“My campaign is committed to building, supporting, and strengthening connections to help people continue to feel a sense of community during this crisis,” Markey said in a statement.

Additionally, Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh told Politico Massachusetts last week that the senator was also relying on “friend-to-friend organizing,” in which supporters chat with people they know, as an alternative to large campaign gatherings.

Switching to digital may not be as easy as it looks though. Campaigns will likely have to reevaluate their budgets as they switch their strategies. However, some strategists say it could be possible to have safe, in-person elements of the campaign amid the crisis.

“We may get back to the kind of campaigning people did 50 years ago, where it was street corner conversations with people, without them having to aggregate in a large crowd,” Simmons said.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Ed Markey Joe Kennedy Lindsey Graham Tom Emmer

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