State Sen. Andrew Koenig and state Rep. Deb Lavender are both accustomed to meeting lots and lots of voters during election time.
The two lawmakers are running against each other in the 15th Senate District race, and one of the reasons the contest is compelling is because of both candidates’ ability to campaign door to door.
But everything’s changed with COVID-19. Koenig said he’s put his campaign on hold and is focused on using his office to get the word out about the governmental response to the virus.
And even though Lavender is still making phone calls for her campaign, she said there’s no way to separate the election from the virus. After recently calling 50 to 60 people on a particular day, Lavender said three people she talked to had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Even if we are over the crisis in three months, I'm not sure even by mid- or late summer, people will be comfortable having a stranger knock on their door, let alone answer it, let alone stand on the front step and talk to somebody for the two to 10 minutes that often we would have,” Lavender said.
Coronavirus has more than just an effect on individual candidates. It’s also presenting a challenge to the state political parties that still need to get ready for national conventions in the summer. And the economic uncertainty and social distancing restrictions are making fundraising a lot more difficult.
“I would say that basically retail politics in America is on hold right now,” said University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion. “And basically all voters are paying attention to is coronavirus. I think there's little attention given to other things, including the campaigns.”
In early March, Kiener Plaza was teeming with people eagerly waiting to hear Joe Biden speak. Several thousand people bunched together in the St. Louis park to get a glimpse of the former vice president before he easily won Missouri’s Democratic presidential primary.
That was just last month. But it seems like a million years ago. Soon after the March 10 primary, scores of businesses closed due to fears of spreading coronavirus. And many jurisdictions across Missouri put restrictions in place banning events that featured more than 10 people. For state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, concerns about spreading the virus fundamentally altered Missouri’s 2020 campaign.
And it’s not just door-knocking events or fundraising that’s changed. Merideth said the virus had an impact on people deciding to run at all, especially since that required going to the Secretary of State’s office in Jefferson City. He believes this crisis should cause Missouri lawmakers to re-evaluate how candidates file for office, including setting up an online system.
“I know of other candidates that we tried to recruit that said, ‘Look, right now, the future of our jobs are so uncertain that we don't feel comfortable taking the leap to file,’” said Merideth, who is part of a group that seeks to elect more Democrats to the Missouri House. “So it's not just the in-person issue right now. It's also the incredible uncertainty.”
Many candidates that did sign up to run for something this year are shifting to the digital world to get the word out about their campaign. Missouri Democratic Party Political Director Naeem Jenkins-Nixon said some candidates, including gubernatorial hopeful Nicole Galloway, have hosted virtual town halls using videoconferencing software to talk to reporters.
But Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jean Evans said the virus prompted postponement of local Lincoln Days, which are often the biggest events of the year for local GOP parties across the state.
Evans noted that many candidates have shifted their messaging from talking about their accomplishments to informing the public about COVID-19. Koenig said that’s what he’s focused on doing right now.
“Our main message is trying to get information to people that they might need about the stimulus package that the feds have,” said Koenig, R-Manchester. “And just any information with different departments. And just really using our office to help people who are in need.”
Convention planning and fundraising
Both Evans and Jenkins-Nixon noted that neither political party in Missouri can be completely inactive, especially since both have to select delegates for the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
That multi-step process is complex and traditionally requires people to be in the same room with one another. Both Jenkins-Nixon and Evans said their parties are making alternative plans amid coronavirus fears.
“We're going to be using online voting and vote by mail for meetings leading up to the state convention,” Jenkins-Nixon said. “We're hoping, and we're still planning, for an in-person state convention, but we're also looking at a contingency plan to do something virtually, if that's not possible.”
Evans said the economic uncertainty is trickling down to people who’ve donated to the Missouri Republician Party in the past.
“And those donors right now, many of whom are businesspeople, are worried about their employees and their families,” Evans said. “They're worried about keeping their businesses open, or how they pay their employees. I mean, the last thing in the world that they're worried about right now is politics.”
Manion said some of the consequences of the virus may remain when social distancing restrictions are lifted. That’s especially true when it comes to the issues that candidates may talk about on the campaign trail.
“I think that when we're looking at the November elections, the coronavirus, our preparation for it, and the fallout that we're experiencing from it is an economic issue,” Manion said. “It's a health care issue. It's an infrastructure issue. It's a border security issue. It's an equity and social welfare issue. It's a budgeting issue. So, I feel like this is going to be the framework for so many conversations around the 2020 elections.”
While some Missouri campaigns are adhering to a new reality, others are taking a step back completely.
Some candidates in competitive races, like Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, are pulling the plug on political activity. His opponent, former state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, announced she was canceling fundraising events on March 11.
“We’re going to do everything we can in this moment to lead well,” Rowden said. “And if that pays off in November, great. If it doesn’t, I get to spend more time with my kids. I’m pretty good either way.”
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