Like many people coming to grips with the coronavirus over the past week, Alyse Galvin is working from her living room.
Yet she’s still trying to stay in contact with the public, as an independent candidate running against Republican Rep. Don Young in Alaska — the incumbent who recently referred to the virus as the “beer virus.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a barefoot Galvin and her campaign communications director went on Facebook Live with early childhood expert Shirley Pittz, sitting in front of her fireplace with their chairs several feet apart. The video, which focused on how to meet kids’ emotional and educational needs while schools are closed and parents are working from home, quickly attracted over 1,000 views. That was more than almost any video Galvin has posted on the site since she launched her campaign in July. A virtual interview she conducted on Sunday with the medical director of a local hospital’s emergency department has racked up over 4,700 views.
Galvin is typical of candidates across the country who have had to halt the physical contact that is the lifeblood of traditional campaigns, and to avoid activities that they feared would appear overtly political during a national emergency. They know they can’t just shut everything down, but they also have to get creative.
“It would be malpractice to just stop all communication and go dark during this period,” said Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.
So some candidates are finding new opportunities by trying to become resources for information-starved voters stuck at home.
“‘I have a big audience, here’s helpful information’ — that alone is a political message when compared to just unbelievable dysfunction,” Law said.
Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, agreed.
“We have to show that we understand this is a crisis and we are on top of it,” she said.
Lawmakers and candidates from both parties have used their Facebook and Twitter pages to circulate Centers for Disease Control guidelines and graphs showing the pandemic’s trajectory. They’ve streamed virtual town halls on the economic repercussions to small businesses and employees. Galvin was among a handful who turned to experts to field questions that just last week would have seemed remote but suddenly have become national concerns, including how to effectively wash your hands and assist elderly neighbors.
Galvin said she saw such services as a natural fit for her campaign, which had already built a network of volunteers across Alaska and spent months working to connect with dispersed communities across the country’s largest and most sparsely populated state.
“If I am going to be representing people, I better be listening to them and helping to facilitate a conversation,” she said. “It’s great that already I have a platform to do that.”
Just two weeks ago, most campaigns were carrying on with standard schedules, shaking hands at Rotary lunches, taking flights and holding talks in coffee shops.
That all changed at a remarkable pace as the first cases of the virus were reported in the United States.
On Wednesday last week, the World Health Organization declared that the new coronavirus was a pandemic. The next day, the DCCC, House Democrats’ campaign arm, was urging candidates to hold as many “virtual” activities as possible, according to a memo obtained by CQ Roll Call.
The group’s Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, sent out its own directive two days later.
In it, NRCC chairman Tom Emmer suggested pulling teams from the field and putting them on the phones. It predicted — accurately — that large-scale fundraisers would soon need to be “paused.” It also advised candidates against fundraising off the pandemic, “as Democrats have done,” and urged them to remain sensitive to voters’ fears.
“At times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste. If you share information on the coronavirus, do it from trusted sources like the [Centers] for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services,” the memo read. “Do not spread misinformation from politicized news stories.”
The directives were followed by a cascade of canceled events as candidates from both parties moved operations online.
A handful who had been in contact with people who tested positive for the virus began self-quarantines, including Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is running for Senate in New Mexico, Maine Senate candidate Ross Lajeunesse and New York congressional candidate Ritchie Torres, both Democrats.
And Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida were the first two lawmakers to announce positive tests for the virus Wednesday. McAdams flipped a Republican district in 2018 that the GOP is trying to win back this year.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican whose seat is targeted by Democrats, announced he would suspend all campaign-related activities “until America overcomes this crisis.”
Others, like Galvin, have leaned into the role of information disseminators.
Perry Gershon, a progressive running against Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin in New York’s 1st District, did a Facebook Live discussion Wednesday evening with his aunt, Robyn Gershon, a professor of epidemiology at New York University.
Jon Ossoff, a Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue in a closely watched race in Georgia, posted a Twitter video of his wife, Alisha Kramer, who is a doctor, discussing social distancing and proper hand-washing techniques. It got more than 61,000 views.
Suraj Patel, an Obama administration alumnus waging a primary challenge against Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney in New York, held a virtual town hall on workers who depend on tips for income as New York City shut down its restaurants and bars.
Beth Van Duyne, a Republican running for an open seat in Texas’ 24th District, put out a Facebook message reminding people that social distancing doesn’t mean total isolation.
“Exchanging phone numbers with your neighbors (if you don't already have them) and keeping in contact with each other via phone or text is a great way to help your community,” she wrote on Monday.
Not everybody got the message, though. California Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican whose district voted for President Donald Trump by 9 points in 2016, went on Fox News on Sunday urging people to go to bars and restaurants.
Former Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican running for an open seat in California’s 50th District, on Tuesday refused to apologize for a March 4 fundraising letter accusing the left of “manufacturing” a crisis. Trump carried that district by 15 points in 2016.
And both parties have accused opposing campaigns of inappropriately using the crisis to raise money by including donation links in emails about the coronavirus.
The NRCC blasted Air Force veteran Kim Olson, one of the Democrats running in the open seat race in Texas’ 24th District, for including a prompt to donate to her campaign in an email that also directed supporters to the CDC website.
But Democrats aren’t the only ones who have done that. Texas Republican businesswoman Genevieve Collins, who is running against Democratic Rep. Colin Allred in the 32nd District, has sent out emails from her campaign warning of scams, detailing cases in Dallas County and listing guidelines from health officials. Each included a “contribute” button at the bottom.
Democratic digital strategist Tim Lim said he understood the criticism of such actions, but he said there’s a simple reason for it: Campaigns have staffers to pay.
“If the campaign is not able to have funds come in, it will have to shut down,” Lim said.
Galvin’s campaign pointed out that her opponent, Young, went to a Chamber of Commerce event at a senior center on Friday and said the response to the virus had been “blown out of proportion.”
“This beer virus, I call it. They call it a coronavirus, I call it a beer virus — how do you like that?” Young said, according to local media reports. “It attacks our senior citizens. Now, I’m one of you. I still say we have to, as a nation, as a state, to go forth with our everyday activities.”
Young’s campaign said on Wednesday he has since postponed face-to-face activities.
“Congressman Young is taking the COVID-19 crisis with deliberative caution and concern,” spokesman Truman Reed said. He added that Young’s comments at the senior center were meant to “urge calm, stressing his confidence that we will weather this storm.”