How Political Campaigns Are Happening In The Age of Coronavirus

Campaign volunteers check in via Zoom with State Senator Holly Mitchell (seen in the center right). Mitchell is running for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. (Courtesy of Naomi Goldman and the Holly Mitchell campaign)

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The California primary feels like a lifetime ago. Believe it or not, it was just last month.

And now that local results are certified, several competitive contests have shaped up for Congress, county supervisor and L.A. City Council.

Candidates vying to win in November are facing a new reality: The COVID-19 threat means no in-person contact with volunteers, donors or potential voters.

Shaking hands and kissing babies are out. So we wanted to find out how local candidates are trying to earn your vote in the time of coronavirus.

We talked to consultants and candidates to learn how they're adapting.

THE CONSULTANTS' VIEW

Expect most politicians to angle to appear "above the fray" of a typically bruising campaign season, said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist in L.A. He's not affiliated with any candidate for the general election.

L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson delivers food to seniors during the COVID-19 Safer At Home period. (Courtesy of the Wesson Campaign)

There are pitfalls to appearing overly partisan during a crisis, and candidates engage in partisan sniping at their own risk, Carrick said.

"Be careful on the messaging front. Back-and-forth attack politics is really going to be questionable," he said.

Political consultant John Shallman agrees that the tone of campaigning has to change — at least in the short-term.

Shallman is working on former Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson's bid for an open seat on the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Wesson's hoping to represent the 2nd district, including Inglewood, Culver City, Carson and parts of South L.A.

"People are going to have to really know that this may not be the right time to run these harsh, negative, personal campaigns," Shallman said. "This may be more of, 'How do I turn my campaign to be a campaign of service?'"

It's also not the time to lead with the political fundraising "ask," said Lenée Richards. She's campaign manager for Wesson's competition: State Senator Holly Mitchell.

Instead of celebrating her primary success in making the top-two runoff, Mitchell's campaign has been fielding calls about how to apply for unemployment, or what seniors who can't leave their homes should do about obtaining groceries.

"There's an immediate need that people want to know that you can help them address," Richards said. "It's an opportunity to show what type of leader you are in the worst of times. How do you show up for people?"

VIRTUAL CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Campaign staff say the front porch is now virtual. They're turning to text messages, emails and social media like never before. Add to that Zoom "happy hours" for donors, virtual town halls to share safety information, and digital organizing trainings for volunteers.

Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel is part of a 2020 field of candidates navigating a unique challenge: how to mobilize supporters, fundraise, and win over voters when the time-honored currency of local politics — face-to-face contact — is impossible?

There's a lot on the line. Steel emerged from March 3 to be the Republican contender to unseat freshman Democrat Harley Rouda in the 48th District. It's one of the most competitive House races on the national map.

Steel says the COVID-19 pandemic has upended plans for a traditional ground game. Instead of appearing at house parties, meeting donors at fundraising events or joining volunteers going door to door, the supervisor's current job has her at the county's emergency operations center daily, working with agency heads to try to flatten the curve of the outbreak.

"Campaigning has almost stopped. Politics is really not my focus right now," Steel said. "It's life and death in Orange County. But I still communicate with my voters with text messages and emails."

While most aspects of daily life have moved online, old fashioned politicking still finds a way.

The seats were mostly empty on a recent Sunday at Calvary Chapel of the Harbour in Huntington Beach. Congregants were online, streaming the service on Facebook Live.

Pastor Joe Pedick began his service by imploring his flock to spend more time with God while other daily distractions are put on hold because of COVID-19.

"God has our attention, doesn't He? He's stripped away so much," Pedick said.

Pastor Joe then welcomed Steel to the stage to share an update on local coronavirus relief efforts — and he plugged her campaign, taking advantage of an executive order from President Trump's first year in office that relaxed rules for churches engaging in political activity.

"As you know, Michelle Steel is running for Congress. And we're excited about that," Pedick said during his introduction. "She holds our views, so I'm very blessed by that."

"I believe that you'd be great as a congresswoman," Pedick later added. "We'd love to have you [represent] our district here. Because I love what you stand for."

Events beamed straight into potential voters' homes, like the Sunday service with Pastor Joe, foster intimacy — at a safe distance.

HOW HER CHALLENGER IS CAMPAIGNING

Rep. Harley Rouda delivers equipment to a Fountain Valley hospital this month. (Courtesy of the Rouda campaign)

Steel's opponent, Rep. Harley Rouda, is asking campaign volunteers to call their elderly relatives and members of their community to offer help while Orange County is sheltering in place.

"What we have seen with our volunteer base is a quick pivot to helping those in need in our community," Rouda said. "From the official side to the campaign side, everything has changed."

In February, Rouda and Steel joined forces with other OC officials to successfully oppose a plan to house coronavirus patients at a federal facility in Costa Mesa. But the congressman has also criticized county leaders over their response, including early mixed messages over sheltering at home during the pandemic.

"Where I do still have significant concerns — I'm fielding calls daily about PPEs, personal protective equipment being available," Rouda said.

On Friday, Rouda joined other local congressional delegation members in a letter asking federal agencies to prioritize sending masks and other equipment to healthcare workers in Orange County.

BIG QUESTIONS

This is all uncharted territory, and big questions remain:

  • Will limited campaigning due to the pandemic help incumbents keep their seats by dampening voter enthusiasm — or hurt them if voters connect them to a perception of slow government response?

  • Will high-dollar ad spending be king, instead of in-person grassroots efforts like door-to-door canvassing?

Local campaign operatives are still weighing these, along with the long-term effects of the virus on voter participation, and the role of money in politics at a time when for many small donors, discretionary cash is in short supply.