Candidates limited by pandemic during campaign

DOVER — Ask just about any politician and they’ll tell you how important voter contact is. Retail politics — knocking on doors, shaking hands, speaking face-to-face — are perhaps even more crucial in Delaware, where voters can reasonably hope to interact with many candidates and officeholders given the state’s size and the close-knit nature of much of its political system.

This year, however, things are different. With COVID restrictions coming down in mid-March, many candidates had little opportunity to go door to door or to speak with potential voters in public ahead of Sept. 15’s primary election.

With only six weeks until the general election, there probably won’t be too many opportunities for that sort of in-person campaigning. While that creates headaches for many, it also gives smart candidates time to adapt and utilize new tools, many of which will likely be used again in 2022 regardless of the situation with coronavirus.

Instead of lamenting the limitations, the Democratic Party helped its candidates accept the reality and find alternative ways to campaign, Delaware Democratic Party Executive Director Jesse Chadderdon said.

The party contacted consultants and campaign experts from around the country in the spring, and Democratic officials worked with candidates to find solutions that fit their budgets, such as greater use of calling and texting potential voters.

“There’s a whole ecosystem out there of campaign tools and tech tools … when you’re a new candidate and campaign, that’s like a total foreign world to you,” Mr. Chadderdon said.

Democratic candidates who won their primary elections, including several newcomers who beat incumbents, were generally the ones who made better use of the options available in a COVID-ravaged world, he said.

In some ways, Mr. Chadderdon noted, the campaigning style isn’t too different: Candidates are still making contact with voters to share ideas and hear their concerns, but instead of doing so through door-knocking asnd public events, the process takes place electronically.

Both parties took steps to inform voters about their options, such as vote-by-mail, though Democrats were much more likely to vote remotely in the primary.

To Gov. John Carney, who easily triumphed in a primary last week and now can gear up for the general election as he seeks a second term, November’s contest will be a “referendum” on his performance, particularly over the last six months.

“It’s very difficult to do it the Delaware way,” he said of his campaign strategy, noting he normally likes to let voters look him in the eye.

The governor’s team has used social media and digital tools, and although he’s not out there shaking hands like in a normal year, Gov. Carney still has the opportunity to interact with Delawareans as part of his duties. He noted he also hosts a weekly press conference livestreamed online.

“I’m just doing my job,” he said.

Republican House nominee Lee Murphy’s campaign was slowed when Mr. Murphy and campaign manager Sherry Jarrell contracted COVID-19 in March. The advantage, Ms. Jarrell said, was learning more about the virus and being able to communicate information to the public.

Early on, Ms. Jarrell said, “We certainly had to revamp our approach after the initial shock of the shutdown, then realizing that it wasn’t going to be lifted anytime soon, and the information coming in was so fluid.”

Like many candidates, Mr. Murphy used phone calls, mailings, Zoom forums and more, although Ms. Jarrell declined to share specifics.

“As people begin to interact more, we’ve used masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer and have allowed everyone to choose to take their own precautions, while also trying to provide access remotely when possible or recording and sharing later with ways of commenting or asking questions,” she said.

“We started a ‘no-contact statewide delivery’ of our yard signs very early as well so that folks could get their signs, we could get out of the house after being cleared by the state, and they could stay safe, often waving from the door.”

Beginning March 15, Ms. Jarrell said, the campaign broadcast town halls with nationwide guests on most Sunday nights. She described the campaign being the first to have them regularly and in broadcast quality.

Republican Julianne Murray maintained that her victory in a six-person gubernatorial primary stemmed from “Gov. Carney’s draconian COVID lockdown restrictions.”

Voters still want to meet candidates and hear their ideas firsthand despite the pandemic, she said.

“Overall, it has been very encouraging. Voters see that I am not afraid to answer their questions and I am not a career politician,” she said. “I found that voters expressed frustration that I could not do larger events because of the Carney restrictions.”

Jess Scarane, who unsuccessfully took on Sen. Chris Coons in a Democratic primary, had been able to knock on more than 25,000 doors in the four months before the pandemic. Although her campaign already planned to make widespread use of digital options, coronavirus forced them to be incorporated on a larger scale.

Volunteers sent numerous texts and made hundreds of thousands of calls, Ms. Scarane said. She also hosted a weekly Facebook Live to answer questions and pitch her ideas.

“One-on-one conversations are really what moves our ideas forward,” said Ms. Scarane, who works in digital marketing.

Sen. Coons noted the pandemic likely hindered his primary election opponent more than him, citing the outcome (he pulled in nearly 73% of the vote) as evidence of the disadvantage Ms. Scarane faced.

It’s not just candidates for statewide offices who used new tools and creativity: A host of individuals won legislative primaries, among them several Millennials taking on much older incumbents.

Madinah Wilson-Anton, who topped longtime Democratic Rep. John Viola in the Newark-area 26th Representative District, said the pandemic definitely hindered her approach. Though she entered the race before the first COVID case in March, the virus prevented her team from expanding door-knocking.

Instead, they relied more on phone calls and virtual events hosted through Facebook and Instagram, as well as a few literature drops once restrictions were loosened a tad.

“Our average contact rate at the doors was much higher than on the phone, meaning we got a lot of voicemail when, if we’d been in person, we would’ve been talking to someone. I think COVID narrowed the margin of victory for us a lot,” Ms. Wilson-Anton, who would be the first Muslim and one of the youngest people ever elected to the General Assembly if she wins the general election, wrote in an email.

“When we spoke to voters about our platform they overwhelmingly supported it and my opponent’s name recognition was very low when we had conversations with voters. But the number of voters we were able to contact really made the race more difficult. We also had a massive doorknocking operation from September to March, even with cold weather etc so we’d pulled away from Viola early on — COVID really leveled the playing field in a way that benefited him.”

Candidates also will see a difference in reaching voters through forums.

Debates have been scaled back, though observers can still watch a few online. The Jewish Federation of Delaware has an event scheduled for Tuesday with candidates for all five statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, Senate, House and insurance commissioner — and the University of Delaware will feature hopefuls for governor and both congressional offices in mid-October.