The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the 2020 campaign, forcing candidates to cancel rallies, creating organizing challenges, and even calling into question how voters can safely cast ballots in November.
But as political operatives grapple with how to run a campaign in the middle of a public health crisis, a number of Democratic members of Congress and candidates are putting their campaigns to work for good — raising money for local food banks, collecting essential items for front-line health care workers, and distributing critical information to help their constituents stay informed.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts, said those actions not only help the community but also gain the trust of voters.
"People are keenly aware of who's a leader and who's not," Marsh said in a phone interview. "And I think this is a tremendous opportunity for people looking for hope, looking for leadership — where there's a huge vacuum right now."
Among the Democrats using their campaign infrastructure for good is Jackie Gordon, a retired Army officer running in New York's competitive 2nd District.
Gordon has recently used her fundraising list not to solicit campaign funds but to share information about local resources that could help her potential constituents navigate the new local rules put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including social distancing.
"I wanted to check in to see how you, your family, and other loved ones are doing," Gordon wrote in the email in early March, just as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was instituting new lockdowns to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in New York state.
The email went on to list coronavirus testing sites in her district, draw attention to special grocery shopping hours for at-risk communities, and list ways people could help in amid the public health crisis.
Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room physician running in Arizona's 6th District, held a Facebook live event, in which her potential constituents could ask her questions about the pandemic.
The Facebook live was watched by 1,200 people and was received well by those commenting on the post.
It's not just candidates using their campaign infrastructure for good.
Freshmen Democratic Reps. Harley Rouda of California, Sean Casten of Illinois, and Elaine Luria of Virginia asked their campaign volunteers to make calls to check in on senior citizens and other constituents in their communities.
Rouda said "several hundred" of his more than 8,000 campaign volunteers from the 2018 election have been calling seniors in the district. The volunteers are helping those seniors get help — either acquiring food or prescription drugs they need — or just being a friendly ear for the vulnerable population.
So far, Rouda said his campaign has made 7,000 calls to seniors in the district, adding that his campaign will continue to do so until there is no longer a need.
"Nothing would be better than to not have a demand — that means we have gotten back to normal," Rouda said. "But I think the sense from the experts is that we have a long way to go, and we have to be prepared to maintain some level of physical distancing for some time."
Luria said her campaign is reaching out to all sorts of people in her district to check in on needs.
"A phone call can go a long way right now to show our community that we're listening and here for them," Luria said. "After each of my recent calls with local elected officials, faith community leaders, and small business owners, the response has been the same: 'Thank you for checking in. It means so much to hear from you during this difficult time.'"
Luria added that not only are her campaign volunteers making phone calls to check in on seniors in the district, they are also sewing masks for health care professionals.
"We are so thankful to have a volunteer team that is ready to get to work and give back in even the smallest way," Luria said.
And Rep. Joe Kennedy III — who is challenging fellow Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey in a Senate primary in September — used his campaign fundraising list to solicit donations to local food pantries and Meals on Wheels, the Boston Globe reported.
Ultimately, campaigns will have to adapt fully to the possibility that traditional in-person campaign activities may not be possible in 2020.
But for now, Marsh said that Democrats have an opportunity to contrast their leadership with that of Donald Trump — who failed to take the coronavirus seriously early on.
"This pandemic has brought to stark relief what this election is about," Marsh said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.