Campaigning for public office during the COVID-19 pandemic means finding new ways to meet the public and to raise money.
“It’s a little bit different than it has been,” said State Rep. Charles Postles Jr., R-Milford. That’s a sentiment many candidates expressed as they head toward the Sept. 15 state primary and the Nov. 3 general election.
There’s so much fear, confusion and worry about around the novel coronavirus, it’s hard for both candidates and the public to know how to handle what were once staples of campaigns: Meet-and-greets at events like the Delaware State Fair; canvassing through neighborhoods and knocking on strangers’ doors; and fundraising without personal interaction such as coffees, parties and rallies.
Across the state, though, both incumbents and challengers are adapting to the virus landscape by finding ways to connect digitally and — very carefully — in person.
If nothing else, said Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, “This pandemic has shown us that we are exceptionally social as human beings.”
“We’ve had to revamp everything,” said Lee Murphy, a Wilmington resident running as a Republican for U.S. Congress. “We’ve been hosting Facebook Live events every Sunday night, bringing in guests and speakers.”
Door-knocking, a staple of campaigns from County Council to Congress, has ended for many, but those who continue it handle it cautiously.
When candidates or their volunteers door-knock, they tap on the door and then back away from the door, pulling down their masks so people can recognize them. The social distancing helps comfort voters who may be particularly uncomfortable with strangers knocking on doors especially amid warnings of aerosolized droplets that can infect people.
“I’ve been out social distancing, giving out flyers and business cards, and asking people what their concerns are,” said David Lamar Williams, a Camden accountant challenging Gov. John Carney in the Democratic primary.
“I was out today in Walmart, giving people cards and showing voters my website.”
More than state issues, Williams said, he has heard a lot about federal issues, especially surrounding financial issues such as unemployment.
Murphy said he hopes to get out and personally talk with voters.
“I’m itching to be out there every day, out in front of people, meeting people,” Murphy said. “We haven’t door-knocked yet, no supermarkets, but hopefully we can start soon.”
Local candidates like Cynthia Green, a Republican running for District 3’s seat on the Sussex County Council, are using tried and true methods of communication. She’s now the county register of wills.
“We’ve been phone calling, text messaging and getting quick responses,” she said. “We’re preparing mail flyers to get the message out and get people interested in the campaign.”
Some candidates have taken a more voter-centric approach during the pandemic.
“For me, the focus is on the constituents, not the race,” Poore said. “It’s more important to focus on constituent work right now. We were elected to serve.”
Postles echoed that sentiment.
“Constituents are our bread and butter,” he said.
State residents have been calling their legislators about a wide variety of issues sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, including unemployment benefits, failures to obtain permits, clarifications on coronavirus guidelines and more.
“People feel like they’re not being heard right now,” Williams said. “There are many issues that the people of Delaware want to be addressed now, and these people need to be heard.”
Williams said he’s paying attention.
“A lot of people don’t think my opponent is listening to them,” he said.
Fundraising and events
Postles says fundraising is in limbo.
Not only are big events that bring in cash impossible, but candidates are well aware that job losses and business uncertainty means people have less they feel they can give.
Delaware hit a record unemployment rate of 15.8% in May, with that number falling to 12.5% in June. Many sectors of the economy are operating at a much lower level than they did before.
“Things are tight right now,” Postles said. “Business owners are not sure what’s ahead, They’re concerned with themselves and their families.”
The state legislature, like many other businesses, held virtual sessions, with representatives calling in from home. That meant less personal interaction with voters and others.
“Normally, at the end of a session, there is a luncheon, where supporters come and help us raise money, but that event did not occur,” Postles said. “It was a significant shortfall.”
Some of the candidates said the difficulty in raising money and the coronavirus restrictions that prevent candidates from appealing directly to people means the election will favor incumbents.
“We’ve been blessed. We have good people who contribute to the campaign, but we’re always looking for help,” Williams said. “We always need money.”
Hosting events has been difficult partly because of the various restrictions on in-person events.
In Delaware’s recovery plan, the state is in Phase 2, meaning that gatherings in parks and other locations are limited to 250 people or less. Indoor gatherings must calculate their capacity as well to account for social distancing of 6 feet between people.
Gatherings of more than 250 people require approval by the state Division of Small Business.
“We’re taking all safety precautions to make sure we can have some events,” Murphy said. “We had a picnic a couple of months ago. We’re having different rallies. We had the (Republican) convention.
“Hopefully, that will be enough to connect with the people and make a difference in November.”