‘We’re in a new world’ – Campaigning in the quarantine era

Delaware state Senate candidate Sarah McBride says not being able to campaign door-to-door presents a significant challenge. (Courtesy Sarah McBride)

Delaware state Senate candidate Sarah McBride says not being able to campaign door-to-door presents a significant challenge. (Courtesy Sarah McBride)

In Delaware, traditional broadcast campaign ads are a rarity. That’s partly because the state is in the Philadelphia TV market. Money spent on campaign ads gets wasted when most of the audience lives in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

That makes door-to-door canvassing a vital way for candidates to let voters know who they are and their stances on the issues. But since coronavirus ramped up in our area, trying to shake hands on the doorstep is certainly taboo.

Sarah McBride launched her campaign for state Senate in July. The early start for a General Assembly race put her ahead of the curve and ahead of coronavirus restrictions. The Wilmington Democrat’s campaign has knocked on more than 4,000 doors in the past eight months.

“There’s no question that we’re in a new world when it comes to this election season. Door knocking and face-to-face interaction has really been at the heart of our politics, particularly here in Delaware,” McBride said.

Though it may have been the heart of her campaign, the health of the community comes first, she said. “That obviously presents significant challenges for candidates, but I know that our community will rise to the occasion. We’ll be able to figure out how to reach people where they are.”

McBride is now using her volunteers to operate phone banks and send text messages to connect to voters, but she says door-to-door meetings early on with voters made her a better candidate. “Those conversations really informed me in how I’m responding to this crisis and what I’m thinking about.”

“I think it shifts where we have the conversation,” said Jess Scarane, a Democrat who is challenging U.S. Sen. Chris Coons in the primary. “Those one-on-one conversations that we were having at the door are still incredibly important, we’re just doing them over the phone now.”

Her campaign is now focused on posting more videos online. “It’s important that voters still see me and how I would lead on these issues,” she said. “It’s important to keep having the conversation that we were having before this crisis, because we were talking about how do we center poor and working people in our politics and in our government to make a country that works for all of us.”

It’s a similar shift for Republican Lauren Witzke who is also running for the Senate seat now held by Chris Coons. “This has completely changed the strategy of our campaign,” she said. “I’m really good with ground game, my whole campaign was door-knocking, recruiting volunteers, and meet-and-greets.”

Now, Witzke says she’s making drastic changes to build up her online presence and technical ability to connect with voters digitally. “I bought a webcam, a microphone, I’m having to do livestreams three times a week, making videos.”

Witzke is also working with her campaign volunteers to make grocery deliveries for pregnant women, seniors, and those with underlying health conditions. “We are going to grocery stores and picking up the food for them,” she said. “That’s a way to give back to our community and keep our volunteers active.”

The health care election

With no end to the crisis yet in sight, the virus and health care issues surrounding it will likely dominate campaign discussions through November.

Already Scarane is calling on Delaware Gov. John Carney to implement a moratorium on rent payments, mortgages and utility payments. “The effects of this crisis are going to be compounded for those of us with the least wealth or the least stability in our lives,” she said

“Health care was already a top topic among voters, and I think it’s only become a deeper focus because coronavirus has really laid bare the issues with our health care system and with our broader social safety net,” she said.

Even Republican candidate Witzke is calling for coronavirus treatment to be provided for free. “Access to coronavirus care, testing, everything like that should be absolutely free. There is no need for us to have to have health insurance or purchase overpriced health insurance in order to get treated,” she said.

For McBride, the crisis puts an ever brighter spotlight on an issue that’s been a top priority for so many voters. “The fact that we’re now facing a national health crisis, really just reinforces the need for a lot of the policies that we’ve been fighting for from the start, and that we heard from neighbors even before this moment started.”

Delaware’s presidential primary is currently still scheduled for April 28. The statewide primary is September 15.

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