Down-ballot candidates forge ahead as coronavirus reshapes 2020 campaign

Running for lower offices amid the pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge.

March 25, 2020, 12:41 PM

For those down-ballot candidates who are forced off the campaign trail and lack the name recognition of those at the national level, running for smaller offices amid the coronavirus pandemic presents an unprecedented set of challenges far more acute than the ones facing candidates at the top of the ticket.

Without the grandeur of a presidential contest, lower-profile races, which rely on in-person grassroots outreach like door-knocking and direct voter contact to build their base of support, are competing without the cash, experience or resources of larger campaigns that can potentially make up the deficit.

Amid the emerging public health crisis, Senate and House candidates are turning to the digital realm as the threat of novel coronavirus upends the election, puts retail politicking on hold and brings the campaigns into unnavigated terrain.

"For folks who are way down ballot, it's going to be an even bigger challenge," said Matt Compton, the head of advocacy and engagement at Blue State, a Democratic digital strategy firm that aided both of former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

"I think they're going to have to think how they can tap into organizing in new ways to reach folks," he continued. "I think you might see some old-fashioned style campaigning take on new science. There's been some political science around this...handwritten notes seem to be a really good way to get folks who are infrequent voters to turn out."

How COVID-19 has upended a high-profile primary clash in Massachusetts

For some, the coronavirus has taken the political aspect out of campaigning.

Last week, Congressman Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., who launched a primary challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Ed Markey towards the tail end of 2019 - teeing up one of the cycle's most high-profile intra-party clashes - temporarily suspended all in-person campaign and field activity.

Instead, Kennedy’s team has shifted to a digital operation focused on responding to the pandemic, opening a virtual office on Facebook to house the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, launching an online response center, and holding virtual town-halls in a nightly news-type style with experts, medical professionals and celebrities, such as Andy Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Dr. Jon Santiago, a Massachusetts state representative and emergency room doctor, and José Andrés, a celebrity chef.

"Since day one, this campaign has been about meeting people where they are," Kennedy said in a statement announcing his campaign reached 2 million people on Facebook in their first week of COVID-19-specific digital content. "With our digital efforts, we are talking with and listening to people across the state every single day. We will keep showing up. We will keep listening. Because right now, we need that more than ever."

The Kennedy campaign is also using its campaign email list to help raise money for organizations across the Bay State and the country, who are providing relief to the nation’s most vulnerable.

PHOTO: Congressman Joe Kennedy, left, and Sen. Edward Markey speak to demonstrators during the Together and Free Rally Against Family Separation at City Hall Plaza in Boston, June 30, 2018.
Congressman Joe Kennedy, left, and Sen. Edward Markey speak to demonstrators during the Together and Free Rally Against Family Separation at City Hall Plaza in Boston, June 30, 2018.
Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

Beyond these existing strategies, the Kennedy campaign is also keenly aware of the rapidly-developing nature of the outbreak, and their need to continually adapt.

"We started off our virtual town halls with a studio in our office. But now as we are transitioning into shelter-in-place, we're going to be a little bit more creative with content. Almost like a nightly news program, if you will, or updates that bring in other videos and voices along with Joe," a Kennedy campaign aide told ABC News. "That's something we're currently working on for long term strategy because I think in terms of really anything, you have to vary content, especially if it is going to be weeks at a time."

For Markey, balancing the dual mandate of addressing the outbreak at the local level, while fronting the response at the national level, is keeping him in Washington for the time being instead of at home in Massachusetts.

But his campaign, unlike his opponent’s, says they are choosing to keep up political activities during this "uniquely challenging time."

"Our opponent suspended his campaign...but we have not suspended because we believe that democracy is important," John Walsh, Markey's campaign manager, told ABC News. "The first thing we do is call folks and ask them how they're doing...But there are many people who realize that a vibrant democracy is really important, and in truth, that's how we're gonna get together and survive this."

While the campaign is seeking alternatives for campaigning under the CDC's guidelines, and with most of their staff working from home, Walsh said they have "kept the same philosophy, the same training, we just adjusted the tactics a little bit."

Their adapted strategy includes increasing their capacity for Zoom, a popular video-conferencing software, relying on an in-house production model - through their "fully-functioning" audio, video, and graphics studio at their headquarters, part of their significant investment in the digital space from the beginning of the campaign - and collecting nomination signatures by mail.

"We talk a lot about wanting person-to-person, friend-to-friend, neighbor-to-neighbor campaign. So now where person-to-person, friend-to-friend, neighbor-to-neighbor, just not face-to-face," he said. "That sort of defines the new normal for us."

Since the pandemic landed inside America’s borders, campaigns up and down the ballot have been forced to tailor their efforts to a new reality that doesn't allow for traditional campaign approaches. While Kennedy and Markey won't face off until September, for other candidates with election days currently set over the next few months, the impacts of coronavirus are more pressing.

Down-ballot races across the country adapt to coronavirus chaos

In Alabama, where former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is in a competitive runoff election for his old senate seat with former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville, the two Republicans will have to wait a bit longer to see who will ultimately take on incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat.

Last week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey moved the primary runoff election, which was scheduled for later this month, to July 14 over concerns of coronavirus.

Over the course of the last week, Sessions' campaign has done several tele-town halls and held conference calls with supporters, as in-person events were cancelled.

"We intend to maintain our vigorous campaign up until the last day, even as we are careful to do so in a manner that puts the health and safety of the public first," Sessions said in a statement, shortly after Ivey announced her decision to delay the runoff.

The Tuberville campaign did not respond to ABC News' multiple requests for comment about how they've adjusted to the new normal the coronavirus has brought.

PHOTO: Young Kim arrives for the House Republican leadership elections forum in the Capitol, Nov. 13, 2018 in Washington.
Young Kim arrives for the House Republican leadership elections forum in the Capitol, Nov. 13, 2018 in Washington.
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

In another key race this cycle, in California's 39th Congressional District, voters in the swing district already picked earlier this month the top two candidates who will square off in November: freshman Congressman Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., and Republican Young Kim, who will tangle in a rematch from 2018 come the fall.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Cisneros narrowly defeated Kim, after largely centering his campaign on the issue of health care. This year, Cisneros is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election, as part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Frontliners" program.

Both candidates have halted all in-person events and voter outreach, turning their focus to the digital sphere in the contentious battle for the Orange County-area district, which was a longtime Republicans stronghold but was carried by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

"As Americans continue to navigate this challenging time, our campaign is doing its part to slow the spread of this deadly virus and disseminate helpful information to the people of our region," said Kim, a former California state assemblywoman. "In order to reduce person-to-person interactions, we have postponed events, halted public appearances, and are working to utilize new campaign tools that do not involve in-person interactions. The campaign is also using its social media channels to get the latest information from state and federal officials out to the community."

PHOTO: Rep. Gil Cisneros arrives for the start of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee joint hearing, March 7, 2019.
Rep. Gil Cisneros arrives for the start of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee joint hearing, March 7, 2019.
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

For his part, Cisneros' campaign is now "100% digital" and have since closed their physical headquarters, with all staff and volunteers working from home.

The campaign has also suspended in-person activities, such as events or canvassing, and is instead resorting to virtual phone-banking and running the campaign via conference call and Zoom meeting.

But in some cases, candidates are even unable to campaign virtually.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who is expected to be in one of the most competitive races across the Senate battlefield, is currently in self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the disease, despite being asymptomatic himself, his office announced last week.

Another frontline Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah, who is facing a tough fight to defend his seat this year, was among one of the first House members to announce a positive diagnosis for coronavirus and was hospitalized on Friday night after experiencing "sever shortness of breath." In a statement, he said he expects to be released "as soon as the doctors determine it is appropriate."

PHOTO: Rep. Ben McAdams speaks during a press conference in Washington, Feb. 11, 2020.
Rep. Ben McAdams speaks during a press conference in Washington, Feb. 11, 2020.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images, FILE

Party committees urge campaigns to take the race online, temper politicking

But as the reach of coronavirus continues to grow - sidelining candidates from the trail, shuffling the 2020 election calendar, with up to 12 states now postponing their nominating contests in some way, and the organizing committee behind the Democratic National Convention currently exploring "contingency options" as the pandemic potentially threatens the culminating event in the Democratic primary process set for mid-July - campaigns are shifting resources and testing their agility amid the unprecedented circumstances.

Still, the campaigns themselves are not alone in their adjustments.

Both the campaign apparatuses for House Democrats and Republicans, which oversee the party's congressional campaign operations and fundraising, are carefully advising their members on how to navigate the uncharted territory.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is "strongly encouraging" campaigns to execute "as many activities as possible" online, according to a recent memo from the party's campaign arm, while urging campaigns to err toward caution in "all decision making."

"Instead of holding a town hall, hold a tele-town hall so that you can answer your community’s questions and stay informed on their priorities," the memo reads. "Instead of having volunteers gather in one place to phonebank, or having volunteers canvass, hold a virtual phonebank. Gather your volunteers on a call ahead of time to kick it off and make sure they get to hear from your candidate."

The Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, implored candidates not to fundraise off of coronavirus - a counterpoint to Democrats' digital ad campaign targeting Republicans over the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus response - and to "be careful" in their messaging during the national crisis in a memo to GOP members.

"The coronavirus is presenting a unique challenge for congressional campaigns nationwide," the memo from NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer reads, outlining how candidates should proceed in the areas of fundraising, public events, and communications during the crisis.

Some of the suggested precautions include limiting grassroots events, switching to tele-town halls, and rely on phone banking for canvassing and fundraising, but others relay harsher warnings ahead of fierce election in November.

"At times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste," the memo says about messaging. "Do not spread misinformation from politicized news stories. Be aware of the backdrop from which you are running your campaign...You must remain sensitive to this while continuing to move your campaign closer to victory in November."

ABC News' Johnny Verhovek and Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.