COVID-19 Changing How Local Candidates Campaign

Door-to-door canvassing, fundraising dinners, crowded rooms of phone banks, shaking hands and kissing babies—all hallmarks of running a local campaign that present new dangers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the strategies on which candidates for office have relied to get out their message and meet potential voters have had to change to avoid passing along a virus with that message. That has politicians and their campaign staff rethinking how to reach voters.

“The biggest thing is not being able to have events to meet people one-on-one,” said Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk, is who is running for re-election in November. “That’s tough.”

She is still going door-to-door to speak to potential voters, but with new precautions—she wears gloves, hangs flyers on the doorknob, rings the doorbell and then steps back beyond six feet to chat. And during the pandemic, it turns out, people are home and looking for someone to talk with.

“People have been very generous about coming out and talking,” Burk said. “I’ve been very surprised by that. There’s a lot of people who are very interested and want to talk.”

Meanwhile, Aliscia Andrews, this November’s Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Jennifer T. Wexton (D-VA-10), said the pandemic has brought out her adaptability.

“As a Marine, I was taught constantly, time and time again, to be able to adapt, and that’s pretty much what we’ve done,” Andrews said. “[We] adapted and kept moving.”

She, too, is knocking doors, but she is also keeping her distance from the people who answer them.

“I think that people appreciate when you’re very respectful of their space, and we’re coming to people from a place of respect,” Andrews said. “Even when we’re door knocking, it’s from a place of respect. People have been very receptive at the door.”

Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk knocks on doors as she campaigns to be re-elected. Door knocking, a traditional campaign staple, comes with new precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

Wexton said her campaign has had to go virtual with almost everything.

“For us, safety is our top priority, so we want to keep our volunteers and voters safe,” Wexton said. “But we still want to inform them about what’s going on and what the stakes are in this election, and also what their options are to vote early, or in-person, or to develop their own plans to vote.”

That means instead of hundreds of volunteers going out into the streets, volunteers are calling and texting for the campaign from their homes.

“We all miss that human contact and that face-to-face contact, but I think there’s a lot of acknowledgement out there as well that these are the times we live in,” Wexton said.

The pandemic also puts a particular focus on the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s upcoming debate—it will be one of the few chances to see the two candidates in the same place. No audience will be in the room, but the whole world will be able to watch the debate on the Chamber’s Facebook page.

“There’s literally 20 people that will be present in a room that has been there for galas that have had a thousand people,” said Loudoun Chamber President and CEO Tony Howard.

That’s because unlike other debates that have been held over video conferencing, the Chamber’s debate is socially distant but in-person at the National Conference Center. The two candidates, some of their campaign staff members, Howard as moderator and a small panel of business leaders will meet for the debate.

“We will actually have them be able to engage with the questioners in the presence of each other in a live format, even though it’s broadcast,” Howard said. “… I hope it makes it more relatable and personal to the audience than your regular Zoom meeting.”

Fundraising: Not so Fun

Where before a candidate might have had an in-person event or dinner to rally supporters and raise money for the campaign, Burk said, now she might have an online meeting. Recently, she held a fundraiser over video conferencing with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Loudoun resident.

“I was very hesitant, just thinking, are people going to really come, are they going to contribute, are they going to want to do it?” Burk said. “I had a large number of people come, probably more than what would have come if it had been at a location. And so it’s just trying to do something differently, but it’s still doing the same thing.”

Andrews said she, too, has had to adapt to meeting people over Zoom instead of in-person. Meeting online, she said, lacks the same sense of human interaction for someone who, like her, thrives on face-to-face interaction.

“That’s the worst part about COVID, is you lose that human element,” Andrews said. “That’s part of why our community, especially in the 10th District, is so amazing. We bring so many people from so many different places here—the interactions and being able to work together.”

Campaign fundraising is still happening, albeit at a reduced rate. So far this election cycle, Burk has reported $12,982 raised, according to campaign finance reports. At this point in her 2018 re-election bid, she had raised more than three times that, $40,868.

Wexton’s July quarterly federal campaign finance report, the most recent available, reports $2.87 million raised in this campaign cycle to date. The same report from 2018 reported $3.6 million raised at that point in that year’s hotly contested Congressional race.

Andrews, for her part, reported just under $296,000 raised in the July report.

But there is no easy way to tell how much of the difference between 2018 and 2020 is attributable to the pandemic—in 2018, for example, Burk faced two challengers, Town Council members Tom Dunn and Ron Campbell. This year, Campbell remains on the ballot but has said he would not actively campaign after failing to win the Loudoun County Democratic Committee endorsement.

Likewise, Wexton’s campaign in 2018 was seen as critical to the national Democratic Party to seize control of the House of Representatives, which it did. And this year, there is a presidential campaign that grabs most of the election headlines.

“A lot of people are hurting, and people who would have been able to spare $100 or $200 for a political donation, now are concerned about their economic future, and those kinds of discretionary expenses are not being made anymore,” Wexton said.

Candidates also are rushing now to bring in donations before the filing deadline for the last campaign finance reports before the election, and, of course, before the election itself. Between the July quarterly report and the end of the 2018 general election, Wexton more than doubled her fundraising, bringing in another $4.14 million.

The New Face of Campaigning

In much the same way that many businesses now plan to keep COVID-era teleworking going indefinitely, campaigners for office are also learning some lessons from pandemic precautions. Burk said some other campaigns aren’t knocking doors at all, but leaning more heavily on phone calls, texting and mailers—and she expects that to continue.

“I think you’ll find that mailing is going to become an even bigger thing in the future, and that’s just making sure that people are comfortable, and doing things to make sure that you’re not making anyone feel uncomfortable for interacting with you,” Burk said.

Some are also eager to get back to some parts of the way campaigns were before.

“One of the things that makes a campaign so exciting and fun is all being in it together, all working these long hours and in close quarters, and the camaraderie of a tough campaign,” Wexton said.

“Truthfully, I think having a better sense of humor and patience is probably the best thing anybody can really get out of this,” Andrews said. “Understand that we probably all need to be a little bit more patient with each other.”

“And,” said Andrews, a mother of three young children, “to wash our hands.”

Wexton and Andrews will meet for the Loudoun Chamber’s debate on Oct. 15 at 8:30 a.m. Register to watch the debate at LoudounChamber.org/events.

This article was updated Sunday, Oct. 4 at 12:55 p.m. to correct a typo.

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