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The pandemic campaign: An unexpected challenge, and a mixed blessing for Pa. political underdogs

Andy Meehan is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's First Congressional District against incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick. In February, he found the Trump Store to be a great location to collect signatures for the ballot. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Andy Meehan is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's First Congressional District against incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick. In February, he found the Trump Store to be a great location to collect signatures for the ballot. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Soon after Pennsylvania began imposing stay-at-home orders in mid-March to contain the coronavirus, Republican Andy Meehan started what he calls a “zero-contact” system for handing out yard signs for his congressional campaign in Pennsylvania’s First District.

“We have some volunteers around the county who…have to be out doing life-essential things, and if there are people along the way who have asked for a sign, and if we can drop something off in their yard without putting anyone at risk…then we’ve been going ahead and doing that,” he said.

Meehan, an investment advisor, self-described “constitutionalist” and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, is running a dark horse campaign in hopes of unseating incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in this year’s primary election, which was recently pushed back from April 28 to June 2.

He doesn’t have much institutional backing. After an interview with Meehan, the Bucks County Republican Party declined to consider endorsing himsaying he’d lied about a 2007 DUI conviction, tried to secretly record the meeting and had previously made “discriminatory statements” on social media. The Montgomery County GOP, which represents a small part of the congressional district joined that decision.

Meehan — who said remarks that the county parties deemed racist were taken out of context — reported having $6,443 on hand to Fitzpatrick’s $1.4 million in their most recently available campaign filings from the end of 2019.

He said despite the challenges that have come with moving his campaign mostly online, he considers the delayed election a “lifeline.”

“It gives us some extra time to reach out to people, to be doing the things that we want to prepare for Election Day,” he said.

Meehan’s position in the race may be unique, but he’s not the only one finding the postponed election to be an unexpected boon.

On the Democratic side of the First Congressional District race, Bucks County solicitor and Ivyland Borough Council member Christina Finello and tech consultant Skylar Hurwitz are competing for the nomination. Even before the pandemic ended their in-person campaigns, the race had been tumultuous.

When the Democratic contenders submitted their last campaign reports in December, there were four candidates — and Finello and Hurwitz were both lagging in fundraising. Debbie Wachspress, a Pennsbury school board member, was leading, and Bucks County Prothonotary Judi Reiss was also holding her own.

But in January, Reiss dropped out. A month later, Wachspress followed suit after she was accused in a lawsuit of using racist and homophobic language. She called the accusations “offensive and completely false” but said she didn’t want to put the congressional seat in jeopardy, and threw her support behind Finello — who had already won the Bucks County Democratic Committee’s endorsement.

Hurwitz acknowledged he’s a “major underdog” in what is now a two-person primary.

He’s spent the last several weeks moving his campaign online — conducting virtual town halls and putting together infographics about his policy proposals.

Hurwitz said although the unprecedented nature of the pandemic has been a challenge, it’s also made him more hopeful about his chances. With campaign fundraising abilities curtailed by the coronavirus, he thinks the race might become more issues-focused — something he sees as a personal strength.

“I think it very much plays in my favor that I don’t shy away from the details, whereas my opponent…it took about six months for that campaign to put anything up on their website,” Hurwitz said.

He is running to the left of Finello, and specifically highlights his support for Medicare for All, canceling student debt, funding free higher education options and lifting the contribution cap on Social Security.

Finello said she has also found silver linings in the suddenly-lengthened primary campaign.

She describes herself as a staunch union supporter who wants to push for a “public option” for health care. One of her key strengths, she said, is that she has deep roots in the First Congressional District and experience as an attorney, clinical psychologist and county official. She’s using those connections and that leadership experience to keep connecting with potential constituents online and over the phone.

“We’ll have plenty of time to talk to the voters about those central tenets of our campaign that are so important to us around economics and healthcare,” she said. “But we just want to make sure that we are continuing to communicate with people about what’s going on in the world, what’s going on with them and how it’s impacting them.”

She said she’s still doing some fundraising, too — and the extra time before the primary election has given her more time to make her case to voters.

“It’s a way to turn something like this into an opportunity,” she said. “It just gives me more time to talk to individuals, connect with individuals…especially because we have to move things online instead of being in-person.”

Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has opted for a different route. As an incumbent sitting on a large cash advantage, he has pulled back from fundraising completely, according to a spokesperson for his campaign.

“Rep. Fitzpatrick took this seriously right off the bat, so I think it was always thought of as something that would change the campaign,” Communications Director Kate Constantini said. “We ceased, temporarily, campaign operations to focus on helping coordinate volunteers for COVID-19 and making sure the community was taken care of.”

Constantini said that work has consisted of trying to organize assistance efforts, like food drives, from Fitzpatrick’s campaign website.

She added, the campaign isn’t treating Meehan as a particularly formidable primary challenger.

“The Republican parties for Bucks County and Montgomery County have completely shunned our opponent,” she said. “They’re not even going to look at someone who has the racist, homophobic history that he does, so it’s not really something that we believe should be commented on, or someone who we should be giving a platform to at all.”

It’s still unclear when Pennsylvania will lift its stay-at-home orders, which took effect across the state at the start of April, but were in place earlier in the First Congressional District.

Some lawmakers have begun pushing to expand mail-in voting and limit the in-person contact that would, under the commonwealth’s current election rules, likely happen during the June primary.

Voters seem to be taking those concerns to heart. According to the Department of State, counties have already processed about 283,000 absentee and mail-in ballots as of Wednesday. Officials note Democrats are requesting them at roughly three times the rate of Republicans.

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