As the far-reaching coronavirus pandemic ushers in staggering death tolls, halts the economy and makes retail politicking all but impossible, House Democrats are readying their virtual organizing strategy, outlining a roadmap for campaigning in the digital sphere ahead of November.
With Democrats mostly on defense this cycle, after flipping 43 seats in the 2018 midterm elections and securing the majority, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is beginning an early virtual blitz - unveiling a "Virtual Action Center" on Friday it says is designed to enlist an online volunteer army for the 2020 elections.
"We knew the fight was not going to be a predictable one...But we didn't obviously expect to be in the middle of a pandemic right now," DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos told ABC News in an interview Thursday. "The Virtual Action Center is our way of mobilizing our base of supporters while regularly scheduled campaign activity is suspended."
"This is the first access point for volunteers to get involved and be able to do that from their own home," she continued. "Battleground races often come up to the last few hundred voters on election day...These campaigns typically depend on door-to-door efforts to turn out those key voters. So we still need to be able to reach them anyway we can during this time."
The impetus for the organizing platform was a conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Bustos, who has represented Illinois’ 17th congressional district since 2013 and now leads the caucus’s campaign efforts.
Within the last three to four weeks, Bustos said, Pelosi told her, "I want to challenge the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with finding a way that we can harness all this [grassroots] energy" while the country is under lockdown.
Bustos, who represents a Trump-won district in northwestern Illinois, said Democrats are using this technology, which they "built from the ground up" to achieve their "electoral goals" this cycle.
The hub, billed as a "one-stop shop" for virtual organizing, allows Democrats to sign up for phone-banks, voter registration drives, and house parties - all online - for a host of campaigns, either near them or in competitive races across the country.
The site, which is available in English and Spanish, also includes a fundraising component, with "donate" links prominently displayed to drive traffic to their contribution page on ActBlue, the Democrats' online fundraising juggernaut, particularly for the party’s "Red to Blue" candidates, the slate of challengers who are seen as top-tier recruits to unseat Republican incumbents and expand their majority.
In the first quarter of the year, some of House Democrats’ most vulnerable members, dubbed "Frontliners," brought in a more than $31.3 million haul, closing out the quarter with nearly $100 million in the bank - a massive sum for the mostly freshman class. At least 17 Democratic challengers outraised GOP incumbents or open seat challengers over the first three months of the year.
Democratic hopes of building on their strong fundraising prowess are up against the reality that the rate of incoming campaign funds will likely slow in the coming months due to the ongoing economic fallout from the coronavirus.
"It's clear that we have people all across the country who are going through very difficult times and I think it's going to affect fundraising. We expect to see some dip in the quarter we just started," Bustos said, before adding, "Our members and our candidates have put in the work early."
With a dedicated hub, the DCCC will allow campaigns and volunteers to actively engage in races as the outbreak continues to isolate voters and keep social distancing and stay-at-home measures in place.
Underscoring the delicate balancing act for candidates between drawing political distinctions and responding to a public health crisis, at the top of the website is a link to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19.
On Friday, coinciding with the launch, the DCCC is hosting a National Day of Action, a push targeting their email list to sign up and volunteer.
At the center of the day of action is the upcoming special election in California’s 25th congressional district, with a feature on the site encouraging Democrats to "join the CA-25 special election team," which brings users to a list of virtual campaign events for Christy Smith, the Democratic state lawmaker seeking to replace former Congresswoman Katie Hill, who resigned last year.
Hill’s seat was a top target for Democrats in 2018, and after she flipped a longtime GOP-held district covering northern Los Angeles County, Democrats are hoping to retain their control. But standing in their way is Republican Mike Garcia, a former U.S. Naval officer who aims to take the seat back. The special election is on May 12.
The early turn in strategy by House Democrats is reflective of the radically uncharted terrain that is the campaign trail this cycle, with much of the changes happening on the fly.
"To me, the big uncertainty about planning right now is that we just don't know how long social distancing is going to be in place," Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News. "So I think the real uncertainty, from a strategic standpoint, is what are the right investments for a campaign to make right now, not knowing what August is gonna look like."
Han, who is an expert in political organizing, said the current political climate does offer an opportunity for campaigns to connect with potential voters, if they have the adequate infrastructure in place.
"I actually think this is an opportunity for campaigns to do a lot of grassroots mobilizing in a way," she said. "If they have the right kind of volunteer base and field infrastructure, this is a great opportunity to reach out and make contact with a bunch of potential supporters."
Before the country found itself deep into the coronavirus crisis, House Democrats were gaming out how to expand their majority, seeing 2020 as an opportunity to broaden their battlefield.
Bustos remains adamant that the virus does not change the battlefield.
"Nobody could have predicted that we would be in the middle of a world-wide pandemic. Nobody could have predicted that we would be in this lockdown state," she said. "Those are things that are out of our control. You have to take control of what you can."
"We had a strategy from from day one...I don't see that we're going to change our battlefield," she added.
As it became clear that candidates would be sidelined and campaigns and parties would be forced to quickly adapt to the new reality, the campaign arm for the House majority adjusted its best-laid plans. The committee isn’t just moving out front in the digital space - shifting their focus on engaging volunteers who are confined to their homes - but they are also actively pursuing litigation to expand mail voting in key states.
"We have invested major financial resources in making sure that we're protecting people's voting rights and we're opening up the opportunities for people to vote, not throw up barriers like they did on the other side of the aisle," Bustos said.
The DCCC, along with other Democratic groups, are investing resources to expand vote-by-mail efforts as coronavirus looms over the November general election.
The committee is bringing suits to challenge some aspects of vote-by-mail in Nevada and South Carolina amid the crisis, part of a broader trend among several voting rights groups around the country, which are all looking to alter the mechanisms of voting as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the country’s electoral system. The DCCC has committed more than $10 million along with Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, on voting rights lawsuits.
Across various lawsuits, the groups argue that voters should not have to choose between their health and casting a ballot. But meeting the demands requested via litigation is not cheap or easy for most states, though, since it includes updating voter registration infrastructure, and undertaking quick changes to election staffing and protocol.
But for their part, the campaign apparatus for House Republicans, too, is helping steer their candidates through the uncertain political landscape, adapting their tactics to meet the unprecedented moment.
Last month, in a memo from Congressman Tom Emmer, Bustos’ counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the committee sought to guide GOP members and candidates through the "unique challenge" the coronavirus is presenting.
The NRCC chairman outlined some advice for members including holding call time to reach out to constituents and check in on them, text solicitations for contributions via GOP Envoy, a peer-to-peer texting solution, hosting events over teleconference or videoconference, and bringing on colleagues to be "special guests," and shifting more heavily to online fundraising, among other guidelines.
The NRCC is also working with campaigns through the new reality "on a one-off basis" and on "conference calls," according to a spokesperson for the party committee.
Both the NRCC and the DCCC are prioritizing the threat of the pandemic above all else.
"Everyone’s priority should be the health and safety of their constituents and supporters, but being in touch with your supporters and fundraising can go hand-in-hand," Emmer writes in the memo.
Democrats say they are hoping to use the difficult time to highlight the work many of their members are doing in their communities to help their constituents cope with the crisis.
"We're not only adapting to this moment in history, we are embracing it from a campaign perspective," Bustos said. "Our campaigns are becoming relief organizations."
Some of the examples Bustos singled out to highlight those efforts include Congressman Josh Harder, of California’s 10th congressional district, using his campaign to organize a PPE drive, collecting more than 30,000 masks for doctors, nurses and first responders, and Max Rose, of New York’s 2nd congressional district, re-joining the National Guard to support efforts in Staten Island as New York remains the epicenter of the crisis.