What's missing from down-ballot races
On Monday, the Massachusetts Democratic Party announced that it would not be able to hold its May 30 convention, and that it would endorse Sen. Edward Markey over challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy. The primary would go forward, but Kennedy had lost his chance at organizing Democratic activists and grabbing the party's official support.
A few hours later, undeterred, Kennedy was asking Boston chef Tiffani Faison to walk him remotely through her soy cola chicken recipe, as a campaign camera streamed the process onto YouTube and Facebook.
"Are any of your places open for takeout?" Kennedy asked as his wife and children smashed garlic. Some places were, some weren't. "Can you find most of this stuff at any supermarket?" Kennedy asked.
"No, you need to go to an Asian market," Faison said. "Support our friends who own Asian markets!"
The coronavirus pandemic, followed by cascading stay-at-home warnings, had frozen political campaigns for weeks. For presidential candidates, that meant the end (for now) of rallies and canvasses, replaced by occasional live streams or live interviews.
For candidates further down the ballot, who did not have reporters covering their every move, it has meant doing even more with even less. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a Senate bid just days before his life became consumed with responding to the pandemic. In other states, campaigns have scrapped every kind of in-person event, and all canvassing.
"We were doing two or three events a week, with 30 to 100 people each, and it's all on hold," said Mike Garcia, the Republican nominee in a May 12 special election for California's 25th Congressional District. "The canvassing and the door knocking is all on hold. The primary feels like a lifetime ago."
That primary was March 3, the last Election Day not affected in some way by worries about the virus. Most candidates for federal and local office were looking down the calendar for their own primaries. In Massachusetts, for example, the presidential contest is held six long months before intraparty contests for House and Senate. In Wisconsin, a special election for an open House seat is scheduled for May, right in the period when the state's coronavirus cases are expected to peak.
"The way I like to keep in touch with voters the most is by traveling northern and western Wisconsin and meeting with people face-to-face," said Tom Tiffany, the Republican nominee in that special election. "Due to efforts to slow the spread, I can't do that right now."
In New York, what was supposed to be an April 28 presidential primary is being pushed to June 23, the same day as all other federal races. Those federal candidates spent their last pre-pandemic weeks wondering how they could get the signatures to appear on the ballot, a worry that didn't disappear until the state pushed that deadline back.
"We did a huge push. I personally went out there and got over 100 signatures," said Evelyn Farkas, a candidate running to replace retiring New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey. "I called my friend, a hospital administrator in Keene, [New Hampshire], and asked: How can I collect signatures safely? And I wanted to make sure I didn't make people nervous when I was there. I wore gloves. I brought fresh pens and let everyone take a pen out of the packet and keep it. That was enough for people."
Since then, like everyone else, Farkas has been staying home. Candidates with health issues had to change their plans even faster. Mckayla Wilkes, who is challenging House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from the left in his Maryland district, has asthma, and told podcaster Daniel Levitt this week that she had left her home only to pick up a prescription at a near-empty Target. Her campaign had stopped traditional canvassing days ago, along with "worker canvassing," which became moot as most Americans stopped going to work.
"We were going out and talking to people in their places of employment," Wilkes said, "and we have cut all of that out. Our campaign has gone pretty much full remote."
Every campaign that had volunteers has done something similar. The Trump-era Republican Party had invested tens of millions of dollars in grass-roots organizing, while Trump-era Democrats were focusing on down-ballot races like never before, filling campaign offices with canvassers. Dozens of candidates of both parties were in a modified sort of limbo, while on the left, uphill challenges against incumbents had grown even harder.
The pandemic has put a halt to that. For Morgan Harper, a candidate challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio in the Democratic primary from the left, the pandemic shredded her get-out-the-vote plan, because the state delayed its March 17 election until April 28. In an interview, Harper remembered visiting a polling place on the final day of early voting, March 16, and watching two young women sit in their car, clearly psyching themselves up to get out and walk to the polling booth.
"They get out, they look at me, and they're like: 'Do you think it's safe?' " Harper said. "We had a lot of people that were signed up to volunteer and be part of our get-out-the-vote effort. But folks started to either have to cancel, or say they would not necessarily feel comfortable going outdoors."
Harper's campaign encouraged volunteers who'd signed up for door-to-door work to make phone calls instead. That has been the story for every down-ballot campaign, and that has led to a little bit of innovation. Kennedy's online cooking class was one example; in California, Garcia has been holding "flash funding teleconferences," in which participants sign up for Zoom-hosted conversations, give money and are encouraged to hold their own virtual fundraisers.
"It's like Jurassic Park: 'Life will find a way,' " Garcia said.
The new tone was visible Tuesday, simply by looking at what wasn't there: a deluge of last-minute emails to donors. While March 31 marked the end of the first fundraising quarter, there has been none of the frenzy that marked previous deadlines, and the donor portal ActBlue had already seen a slight decrease in down-ballot giving.
"There's been a shift in how campaigns are fundraising," said Erin Hill, the executive director of ActBlue. "You've got campaigns sending fewer emails, sending emails for charity, providing information to constituents. We're not seeing a trend yet, but we're seeing Senate volume down about 6% compared to the beginning of the month, and we've seen House volume down by 12%. But when candidates are asking, donors are still giving."
That money is being spent on races that are still changing as governments respond to the crisis. Texas bumped a scheduled runoff from mid-May to mid-July, giving U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar and opponent Royce West just a few months for a general-election campaign. Staying at home meant that Hegar, who has been endorsed by national Democrats, could not travel around the state, the tactic that made the party's last nominee, Beto O'Rourke, more competitive.
"Hyper-localizing everything is hard," said Hegar. "When you do telecommunications, the temptation is to make everything as broad as possible, and that's a mistake. So we're doing a bunch of organizing boot camps, talking to volunteers and making sure they are okay, making sure everyone understands what they can accomplish, and doing some online training."
After that comes the actual campaign, and campaigns are not about national solidarity or personal self-care. Partisan messaging, in TV and digital advertising, has slowed to a trickle since the middle of March. In California, Garcia has taken a few jabs at his opponent, Democratic state legislator Christy Smith, for not holding a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management as the crisis bore down. Asked about the president, who lost the district four years ago, Garcia said he'd done a "good job," contrasting him with Smith.
"These are uncharted waters for any administration," Garcia said. "He's been as aggressive as he can be, turning over every rock to find a solution to every problem."
Hegar, running for Senate in a state Trump carried easily, was less impressed. Asked about the president's advice a week ago, that the country could reopen around Easter, Hegar scoffed.
"I trust his judgment about as much as I would trust my toddler to tell me when to go back to work," Hegar said. "When the health experts say it's safe to go outside again, that's when I'll ask campaign staff to get back out there."
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The Washington Post's Ben Terris contributed reporting.