Campaigning in a time of COVID

For candidates used to going door to door and hosting in-person town halls, the coronavirus has changed the playing field this election season

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Donna Sinclair, a Democratic candidate running for state legislature in the 18th District, installs a campaign sign in Washougal. Sinclair has had to readjust her campaign strategies during the COVID-19 shutdowns. (Contributed photo courtesy of Donna Sinclair)

Monday marked the beginning of candidate filing week in Washington state and the start of an election season that races toward an Aug. 4 primary before culminating in the Nov. 3 general election.

For candidates, this time of year is typically filled with door-knocking, in-person town halls and on-the-road campaign events.

So what happens when statewide bans on gatherings and “stay home” orders meant to prevent the spread of a deadly new coronavirus upset the natural order of campaigning?

The Post-Record recently talked to two Democratic candidates who declared early campaigns this year — Washougal School Board member Donna Sinclair, who is running for a state legislature seat in the 18th District, and Vancouver professor Carolyn Long, who hopes to represent Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives — about what it’s like to campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Out of the gate strong … and then it all stopped’

When Sinclair announced her bid for state legislature in mid-January, the World Health Organization (WHO) had already alerted world leaders to be on the lookout for cases of a novel coronavirus, but the threat posed by COVID-19 was still, in most people’s minds as well as in the words of WHO reports, “a developing situation.”

Inside the Sinclair campaign, talks of house parties, meet-and-greets and events at public libraries still dominated discussions in late January and early February.

“We got out of the gate strong,” Sinclair says. “I was still working a lot, so I couldn’t go to many meetings, but we were doing a lot of planning … and, on the weekends, doing fundraisers.”

Late February brought a successful house party fundraiser Sinclair’s way, and by early March she was drawing crowds at public meet-and-greet events in Salmon Creek and at the Camas Public Library.

“And then it all stopped,” Sinclair says. “I was teaching four classes — three at Western Oregon and one at (Washington State University Vancouver) and it was midterms at WSU and finals week at Western,” Sinclair recalls. “On March 13, we were having a midterm at WSU.”

The university had already made a decision to hold online classes after the midterms concluded. One student came to the midterm wearing a mask.

“The midterm, on March 13, was my last day in class,” Sinclair says.

Since then, she has left her house fewer than half a dozen times — and then only for essential trips to pick up groceries or get mail from her campaign’s post office box.

After more details about the coronavirus’ dangers emerged in mid-March and people started to consider staying home to help “lower the curve,” Sinclair immediately shifted gears on her campaign strategy.

“A lot of people have invested money in my campaign, so I couldn’t just say, “There’s a pandemic. I can’t campaign anymore,'” she says. “And I didn’t want to (stop campaigning.)”

Instead, Sinclair looked to the strategies she was learning about in her role as a history professor.

“The first thing I did was attend three or four Zoom trainings, including one on digital campaigning through Emily’s List,” Sinclair says. “We immediately started building our social media and digital presence.”

When she hosted her first Zoom event in late March, “everyone was really depressed and we talked about (COVID-19),” Sinclair says. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is not the time for this.'”

As she spoke to more constituents of the 18th District, Sinclair realized people were hungry for more information. So she started conducting interviews with health care experts and business leaders and put that information, as well as a list of resources, out to the public.

“The situation has really caused me to evaluate how I’m approaching the campaign,” Sinclair says. “Public health is a key issue, so I’m thinking a lot about that and doing as much research as I possibly can.”

She is talking to people, mostly online, about their needs during the crisis.

“I’m talking to a lot of people who are older and need safety, pure and simple. They’re not so much concerned about what’s going to happen next; they’re concerned about not being exposed to this virus,” she says.

Sinclair also talks to a lot of local business owners, who she says are “just trying to hang on.”

She is looking forward to campaigning more often this summer, after her classes at WSU-V and Western Oregon have wrapped up.

Until it’s safe to meet in small groups again, Sinclair will keep campaigning in a way that doesn’t jeopardize her own health of the health of those around her: by posting her signs around the 18th District, calling people, sharing online resources and hosting digital events.

“It’s an ongoing process of evaluating the evidence and seeing what’s safe and what’s not,” she says. “I’ll always err on the side of caution.”

Meeting people where they’re at: online, at home

Anyone familiar with Carolyn Long’s 2018 bid for Congress knows this candidate thrives in an in-person environment.

In fact, if this were a normal election year, one in which COVID-19 did not exist, Long would likely be hosting town halls and meet-and-greet events a few times a week.

The last time Long challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, she talked about the importance of being in front of voters and of showing up to in-person events. In the build-up to the 2018 general election, Long could be found talking to politically active young people at Camas High, holding town halls at the Camas Public Library and meeting with supporters at places like 54?40′ Brewing Company in Washougal.

“The bread and butter of my campaign is really being in the community as much as possible,” Long says, “holding town halls and connecting with people on a personal level.”

Since announcing her second bid as a Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District in July 2019, the Washington State University Vancouver (WSU-V) professor has hosted over 50 town halls.

Recently, however, those town halls have had to go virtual.

Long held her fourth Facebook Live Town Hall last week and regularly hosts more personal, “Coffee with Carolyn” events online to reach out to supporters and voters.

Although the venue has shifted from a library or someone’s living room to a computer screen, Long says she is still trying to let people know she hears their concerns.

“People are anxious. They have a desire for leadership in Southwest Washington,” she says.

At the same time, Long says, she also sees people wanting to come together as a community during the COVID-19 crisis, independent of political beliefs.

“People want to have a sense of community right now,” Long says. “At this moment that we’re in, we’re just trying to think about how we can give back to the community. The calls (I’m making) to people right now are about how they’re doing. Politics is secondary.”

When she meets with smaller groups online during her “Coffee with Carolyn” events, which tend to have 10 to 30 participants, Long hears mostly personal stories of how people are coping right now.

“We talk about how they’re doing, how their family is doing,” Long says.

She’s heard stories of neighbors helping neighbors, distillery owners producing hand sanitizer to give to frontline workers and people reconnecting with loved ones for the first time in months.

“That’s rewarding,” she says of hearing the personal stories of communities coming together for a common cause. “And it’s something you don’t necessarily get in a (non-COVID-19 environment).”

Other stories aren’t as rosy, especially those involving small business owners.

“Many have not been able to access the resources that Congress told them would be available to them,” Long says. “Some of these small businesses operate on very slim margins. (If they don’t have funds coming in) for just a couple weeks, it can mean they’re never coming back.”

Having grown up working for her parents’ produce stand on the Oregon Coast, Long says she understands the frustration and fear these small business owners are feeling.

At a recent Facebook Live town hall event, Long addressed the subject of the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

“I’m really sad to say that it’s not the first time I’ve heard from a small business owner about the problems that they’ve encountered with the small business loans,” Long said. “Business owners are actually keeping people on payroll in anticipation of a loan coming through and it hasn’t — and then they’re really putting themselves in jeopardy in terms of their financial stability.”

What’s made the situation worse, she added, is the fact that large corporations seem to be getting funds meant to keep small businesses afloat during the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Long says her Facebook Live town halls tend to bring out more policy related questions.

“We’re hearing questions about health care and about preserving Social Security and Medicare at every town hall,” Long says. “And I’ve never had more interest in my broadband-for-all proposal — they never knew that so many people didn’t have access to (broadband).”

Although Long has transitioned easily to a more digital world, campaigning in the time of COVID-19 does have one definite drawback for a candidate who seems to thrive in face-to-face situations.

“The most rewarding thing about campaigning for office is having the chance to meet people where they’re at and listen to what’s on their mind,” Long says. “You can’t beat having that human connection, that one-on-one … I do miss that connection.”