'You Can't Put The Public In Danger': How The Coronavirus Has Changed Campaigning

Mar 21, 2020
Originally published on March 22, 2020 12:28 pm

Brianna Wu is hoping for an upset.

The software engineer is looking to challenge incumbent Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) for a second time. But, before that, she has to get on the ballot for September's primary.

For congressional candidates like Wu, that means collecting 2,000 signatures, no large number. But with in-person contact several limited by the coronavirus outbreak, even that feels impossible now.

"You can't ethically go out to shopping malls, or knock on people's doors or have Democratic town halls," Wu said. "You can't put the public in danger by doing that."

In races up and down the ballot, in districts across the country, candidates have suspended canvassing because it's too dangerous for candidates to ask volunteers to knock on doors. In-person fundraisers have come to a full stop. Staffers who once filled campaign offices and spilled into the street are now working from home. It raises the question: When Americans from coast to coast are practicing "social distancing," how do candidates campaign?

For her part, Wu is one of roughly a dozen candidates who signed on to a letter urging Massachusetts to delay the deadline to submit signatures by 30 days. She argues that candidates facing tight deadlines to gain ballot access are stuck between two tough choices.

"Do I just throw away all the work I've done, or do I put the public in danger," she asked, rhetorically, having already made the decision for her own campaign.

That deadline is one of a series of challenges facing candidates who are figuring out how to run in an environment where many voters are more focused on their own well being than any upcoming election.

Wu's calendar used to be full of engagements, town halls and volunteers knocking on doors. Now, there's virtual town halls and call time — hours spent huddling to call would-be supporters — but even the proposition of asking for money is fraught.

"I had three different people just yesterday who had pledged to donate to my campaign and then we got in touch with them, and they were like, 'I just lost my job,' " she said.

Candidates are facing a series of challenging choices, said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run For Something, which supports first-time candidates. One of those is fulfilling the signature requirements to appear on the ballot to begin with.

"If you can't leave your home then you definitely shouldn't be going up to strangers asking them to sign something to help you get on the ballot in the first place," she said. "Challenge No. 2, we know that for these local candidates, for them the most effective way for them to win an election is to knock doors and personally connect with voters. Obviously that's not happening."

Instead, they're turning to things like virtual phone banks, text messages and digital advertising — in short, any tool at their disposal.

In Suffolk County, New York, Democrat Nancy Goroff is running to challenge Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin for his seat in New York's 1st congressional district. Last week, the chemistry professor scrapped all of her in-person events and sent her staff home.

"We switched from knocking on doors to calling and texting people because we did not want to be contributing to spreading the virus in any way," she said.

The primary is still months away on June 23, but what primary day may look like isn't far from Goroff's mind. She hopes that if things haven't changed by June there will be easier access to absentee ballots.

"We don't know what's going to come next," she said. "But we want to make sure first and foremost people are able to vote, and able to do so in safety and not have to worry about exposing themselves to infection by voting."

In Illinois' 14th congressional district, state Sen. Jim Oberweis won a crowded, seven-way primary to take on incumbent Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood in the fall. Underwood flipped the traditionally Republican seat in a suburban Illinois district outside of Chicago in 2018. This year, it's one of the GOP's top targets.

But in an interview, Oberweis says he's not thinking much about that right now. Oberweis, a businessman and a perennial candidate for office, said, "We're not really focusing right now on trying to win the election in November. We're focusing on how do we help people stay safe."

For Oberweis, the impact has also been personal.

"I have a daughter and family out in California. I've been able to talk to them with FaceTime and she is concerned that their whole family has this virus," he said. "She can't get a test because their symptoms are not that serious."

Now, he said, his daughter is hoping that at least one member of the family can soon be tested for coronavirus so they'll have a better sense of whether the whole household is affected.

Since he won his primary, Oberweis has been calling supporters who helped put him on top of a crowded field, and has been focused on providing a steady stream of resources over social media.

"What we're doing from a campaign standpoint is very limited," he said, when asked what his campaign may look like in the future. "It will be a virtual campaign, we're talking to some people, we will be doing some tele-town halls, but even the town halls are going to be focused on how we help people."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

OK. Remember how the campaign was the big story? Ah, good times, good times. Not only has the coronavirus diverted attention from November's elections. It's also changed the campaigns and not just Joe Biden's, Bernie Sanders's and Donald Trump's. Thousands of candidates are running for office this year. And as NPR's Juana Summers reports, those down-ballot candidates are really feeling the effects of the coronavirus.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Brianna Wu is looking for an upset. The software engineer is hoping to challenge Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch in Massachusetts for a second time. But before that, she has to get her name on the ballot for September's primary. That requires collecting 2,000 signatures, which is impossible right now.

BRIANNA WU: You can't ethically go out to shopping malls and knock on people's doors or Democratic townhalls. You can't put the public in danger by doing that.

SUMMERS: Wu and others wrote a letter to Massachusetts political leaders asking to delay the deadline to submit signatures by one month. Right now, it's too dangerous for candidates to ask volunteers to knock on doors. They've canceled fundraisers and sent their staffs home. They're also figuring out how to run in an environment where many voters are more focused on their personal well-being than any upcoming election.

And then there's the money. Competitive campaigns can be expensive. And without money, they dry up. But some people simply can't afford to chip in.

WU: I had three different people just yesterday that had pledged to donate to my campaign. And then we got in touch with them. And they're like, I just lost my job.

SUMMERS: Democrat Nancy Goroff is running to challenge Republican Representative Lee Zeldin in New York. Last week, the chemistry professor scrapped all of her in-person events and sent her staff home.

NANCY GOROFF: We switched from knocking on doors to calling and texting people because we did not want to be contributing to spreading the virus in any way.

SUMMERS: Goroff's primary is on June 23 - so still months away. But she says she's already thinking about what that could look like.

GOROFF: We want to make sure, first and foremost, that people are able to vote and able to do so in safety and not have to worry about exposing themselves to infection by voting.

SUMMERS: She hopes that, if things haven't changed by June, there will be easier access to absentee ballots.

Earlier this week, Illinois State Senator Jim Oberweis won a crowded Republican primary to face Democratic Representative Lauren Underwood in November. Underwood flipped this traditionally red seat in a suburban Illinois district outside of Chicago in 2018. This year, it's one of Republicans' top targets. Oberweis says he's not thinking much about that right now.

JIM OBERWEIS: We're not really focusing right now on trying to win the election in November. We're focusing on, how do we help people stay safe?

SUMMERS: Oberweis says he's been calling the folks that helped him win his primary to thank them and posting what feels like an endless stream of resources on social media.

OBERWEIS: It will be a virtual campaign where we're talking to some people. And we will be doing some tele-townhalls. But even the tele-townhalls are going to be focused on, how do we help people?

SUMMERS: The impact has also been personal. When we spoke yesterday, Oberweis talked to me about his daughter, who lives halfway across the country in California with her family. They've been keeping in touch over FaceTime. He told me that she and her family are experiencing some mild symptoms that could be coronavirus. But so far at least, like many Americans, they haven't been able to get tested. Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "PRICELESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.