The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to spend more time talking on the phone and staring at computer screens.
And political candidates are no exception.
With some campaigning activities have been curtailed, candidates in the November election are trying a new style of campaigning — one with fewer handshakes and cheek-to-jowl fundraisers, and more phone calls and online “coffees.”
Some candidates say a traditional part of campaigning — and a connection between candidates and voters — has been lost, at least for this election.
“Nothing 100% replaces the ability to go to someone’s door and talk to them. That’s the piece of the campaign I miss the most,” said U.S. Rep Suzan DelBene, who is running for re-election in the 1st Congressional District, which includes part of Skagit County.
Other candidates agree.
“Actually knocking on doors and talking to voters, that’s the biggest piece missing,” said Angie Homola, a candidate for the state House of Representatives in the 10th Legislative District. “You also can’t have in-person fundraisers safely. Those aren’t just fundraisers but a place in a comfortable environment to answer people’s questions — let people know who you are, hear about their struggles, what their priorities are. It’s a struggle when we can’t do that.”
With many of the in-person campaigning options curtailed or unavailable, candidates and their campaign staffs have gotten creative.
Greg Gilday, who is running against Homola, said he personally called about 5,000 voters leading up to the primary election.
“People at the end of the summer were still wary of COVID and appreciated a phone call rather than a knock on the door,” he said.
Candidates have also held online gatherings so they could meet voters face to face ... or as close to it as could be managed. They say there is a silver lining to reaching out online.
“People who may not have been mobile can engage. That’s a benefit of moving to a new medium. You can connect with people who may not have been able to travel,” Homola said.
Said DelBene, “One thing that’s been a positive has been the ability to bring groups together that normally wouldn’t be able to drive or get together. That’s not only been nice for me, it’s been nice for them to share ideas and get different perspectives.”
Organizations centered around elections have adjusted, too.
Local chapters of the League of Women Voters have worked to hold online candidate forums rather than their traditional in-person events.
Wende Sanderson, president of Skagit County’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the candidates seemed to appreciate the opportunity to participate in online forums.
“The pandemic changes how they can get out and meet people. They said this is one of primary ways to get their message out,” she said.
In local races, candidates for county commissioner have also had to adapt.
Mary Hudson, a Democrat running to represent District 2 on the board of commissioners, said the thing she misses most is one-on-one conversations with community leaders and potential voters.
“I’d hoped it would have been a different campaign,” she said.
Due to the pandemic, she said many of the traditional campaign strategies she used in getting elected to the Mount Vernon City Council had to be thrown out.
She said she doesn’t feel comfortable ringing doorbells and hosting house parties, saying she “(doesn’t) want to sacrifice someone’s health for a vote.”
In the past, these practices had given her an opportunity to learn more about community needs and priorities directly from those affected.
“It’s hard to get your message out when you don’t have the personal connection anymore,” Hudson said.
Rather, she said she has to be confident her supporters and volunteers are spreading her message through word of mouth.
Her opponent for the commissioner seat, nonpartisan candidate Peter Browning, said COVID-19 has made campaigning difficult, and it has been made harder by the fact he isn’t tied to a political party.
“Being nonpartisan means you don’t get the same exposure,” he said.
Without a built-in group of supporters and fundraisers, he said he has had to work harder to find volunteers and venues for communicating with the public, and has had to commit more of his own money to the campaign.
Browning said he continues to ring doorbells — something he believes was effective during the primary election — because he values personal conversations with voters. But he said he makes sure to wear a mask and stay 10 feet from those to whom he is talking.
“That part of small-county politics is good,” he said of making personal connections with voters.
Browining said speaking one on one with county residents is something that can’t be replaced by remote meetings, campaign signs and online outreach.