What’s missing from down-ballot races

In this edition: How the pandemic is hitting down-ballot candidates, what’s happening in the states balancing the crisis against the primary calendar, and how Andrew Cuomo became New York’s most popular man.

I’m only sending newsletters to people who’ve been nice to me, and this is The Trailer.

On Monday, the Massachusetts Democratic Party announced that it would not be able to hold its May 30 convention, and that it would endorse Sen. Edward J. Markey over challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy. The primary would go forward, but Kennedy had lost his chance at organizing Democratic activists and grabbing the party’s official support.

A few hours later, undeterred, Kennedy was asking Boston chef Tiffani Faison to walk him remotely through her soy cola chicken recipe, as a campaign camera streamed the process onto YouTube and Facebook.

“Are any of your places open for takeout?” Kennedy asked as his wife and children smashed garlic. Some places were, some weren’t. “Can you find most of this stuff at any supermarket?” Kennedy asked.

“No, you need to go to an Asian market,” Faison said. “Support our friends who own Asian markets!”

The coronavirus pandemic, followed by cascading stay-at-home warnings, had frozen political campaigns for weeks. For presidential candidates, that meant the end (for now) of rallies and canvasses, replaced by occasional live streams or live interviews. 

For candidates further down the ballot, who did not have reporters covering their every move, it has meant doing even more with even less. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a Senate bid just days before his life became consumed with responding to the pandemic. In other states, campaigns have scrapped every kind of in-person event, and all canvassing.

“We were doing two or three events a week, with 30 to 100 people each, and it’s all on hold,” said Mike Garcia, the Republican nominee in a May 12 special election for California’s 25th Congressional District. “The canvassing and the door knocking is all on hold. The primary feels like a lifetime ago.”

That primary was March 3, the last Election Day not affected in some way by worries about the virus. Most candidates for federal and local office were looking down the calendar for their own primaries. In Massachusetts, for example, the presidential contest is held six long months before intraparty contests for House and Senate. In Wisconsin, a special election for an open House seat is scheduled for May, right in the period when the state’s coronavirus cases are expected to peak.

“The way I like to keep in touch with voters the most is by traveling northern and western Wisconsin and meeting with people face-to-face,” said Tom Tiffany, the Republican nominee in that special election. “Due to efforts to slow the spread, I can’t do that right now.”

In New York, what was supposed to be an April 28 presidential primary is being pushed to June 23, the same day as all other federal races. Those federal candidates spent their last pre-pandemic weeks wondering how they could get the signatures to appear on the ballot, a worry that didn’t disappear until the state pushed that deadline back.

“We did a huge push. I personally went out there and got over 100 signatures,” said Evelyn Farkas, a candidate running to replace retiring New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey. “I called my friend, a hospital administrator in Keene, N.H., and asked: How can I collect signatures safely? And I wanted to make sure I didn’t make people nervous when I was there. I wore gloves. I brought fresh pens and let everyone take a pen out of the packet and keep it. That was enough for people.”

Since then, like everyone else, Farkas has been staying home. Candidates with health issues had to change their plans even faster. Mckayla Wilkes, who is challenging House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer from the left in his Maryland district, has asthma, and told podcaster Daniel Levitt this week that she had left her home only to pick up a prescription at a near-empty Target. Her campaign had stopped traditional canvassing days ago, along with “worker canvassing,” which became moot as most Americans stopped going to work.

“We were going out and talking to people in their places of employment,” Wilkes said, “and we have cut all of that out. Our campaign has gone pretty much full remote.”

Every campaign that had volunteers has done something similar. The Trump-era Republican Party had invested tens of millions of dollars in grass-roots organizing, while Trump-era Democrats were focusing on down-ballot races like never before, filling campaign offices with canvassers. Dozens of candidates of both parties were in a modified sort of limbo, while on the left, uphill challenges against incumbents had grown even harder.

The pandemic has put a halt to that. For Morgan Harper, a candidate challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio in the Democratic primary from the left, the pandemic shredded her get-out-the-vote plan, because the state delayed its March 17 election until April 28. In an interview, Harper remembered visiting a polling place on the final day of early voting, March 16, and watching two young women sit in their car, clearly psyching themselves up to get out and walk to the polling booth.

“They get out, they look at me, and they’re like: ‘Do you think it’s safe?’ ” Harper said. “We had a lot of people that were signed up to volunteer and be part of our get-out-the-vote effort. But folks started to either have to cancel, or say they would not necessarily feel comfortable going outdoors.”

Harper’s campaign encouraged volunteers who’d signed up for door-to-door work to make phone calls instead. That has been the story for every down-ballot campaign, and that has led to a little bit of innovation. Kennedy’s online cooking class was one example; in California, Garcia has been holding “flash funding teleconferences,” in which participants sign up for Zoom-hosted conversations, give money and are encouraged to hold their own virtual fundraisers.

“It’s like Jurassic Park: ‘Life will find a way,’ ” Garcia said.

The new tone was visible Tuesday, simply by looking at what wasn’t there: a deluge of last-minute emails to donors. While March 31 marked the end of the first fundraising quarter, there has been none of the frenzy that marked previous deadlines, and the donor portal ActBlue had already seen a slight decrease in down-ballot giving.

“There’s been a shift in how campaigns are fundraising,” said Erin Hill, the executive director of ActBlue. “You’ve got campaigns sending fewer emails, sending emails for charity, providing information to constituents. We’re not seeing a trend yet, but we’re seeing Senate volume down about 6 percent compared to the beginning of the month, and we’ve seen House volume down by 12 percent. But when candidates are asking, donors are still giving.”

That money is being spent on races that are still changing as governments respond to the crisis. Texas bumped a scheduled runoff from mid-May to mid-July, giving U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar and opponent Royce West just a few months for a general-election campaign. Staying at home meant that Hegar, who has been endorsed by national Democrats, could not travel around the state, the tactic that made the party’s last nominee, Beto O’Rourke, more competitive.

“Hyper-localizing everything is hard,” said Hegar. “When you do telecommunications, the temptation is to make everything as broad as possible, and that’s a mistake. So we’re doing a bunch of organizing boot camps, talking to volunteers and making sure they are okay, making sure everyone understands what they can accomplish, and doing some online training.” 

After that comes the actual campaign, and campaigns are not about national solidarity or personal self-care. Partisan messaging, in TV and digital advertising, has slowed to a trickle since the middle of March. In California, Garcia has taken a few jabs at his opponent, Democratic state legislator Christy Smith, for not holding a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management as the crisis bore down. Asked about the president, who lost the district four years ago, Garcia said he’d done a “good job,” contrasting him with Smith.

“These are uncharted waters for any administration,” Garcia said. “He’s been as aggressive as he can be, turning over every rock to find a solution to every problem.”

Hegar, running for Senate in a state Trump carried easily, was less impressed. Asked about the president’s advice a week ago, that the country could reopen around Easter, Hegar scoffed.

“I trust his judgment about as much as I would trust my toddler to tell me when to go back to work,” Hegar said. “When the health experts say it’s safe to go outside again, that’s when I’ll ask campaign staff to get back out there.”

Ben Terris contributed reporting.

Reading list

“Both public health and politics played a role in Trump’s coronavirus decision,” by Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb

Behind a decision to push back the end of stay-at-home rules.

“Across the country, campaign operatives are stuck,” by Michael Kruse and Elena Schneider

Life for political organizers who have no job, and no source of health insurance, as the primary winds down.

“Bernie Sanders says he’s staying in the presidential race. Many Democrats fear a reprise of their 2016 defeat,” by Sean Sullivan, Michael Scherer and David Weigel

Why Democrats want Sanders to wrap it up.

“SC candidates file as outbreak puts calendar in question,” by Meg Kinnard

What happened in the first state to set its ballot under pandemic rules.

“New Trump video offers more spin than ‘hope,’ ” by Glenn Kessler

Picking apart a message from the president’s campaign.

In the states

Wisconsin’s primary is still scheduled for April 7, despite the stampede of election officials in other states moving their contests down the calendar. It’s still planning to hold in-person voting at nearly 2,000 precincts, despite other states replacing polling places with mail-in ballots. 

So far, it’s not going well. As Patrick Marley and Craig Gilbert report for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s biggest jurisdictions have failed to recruit enough poll workers to staff every election site. In Milwaukee, just around 400 people have signed up for 1,400 Election Day roles. In the city of Waukesha, a suburban stronghold for Republicans, the number of polling sites has been reduced from 13 to one.

The state’s political leadership, bitterly divided between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, has pushed ahead regardless. On Tuesday, Joe Biden’s campaign weighed in to support ballot measures in Milwaukee and Racine, with a statement making no reference to worries about the election. (Biden said in a Sunday interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that mail voting should be expanded “across the board.”) And while 850,000 absentee ballots have been requested in Wisconsin, a big jump from the 2016 primary, that’s still fewer than the 1 million votes cast in that contest. 

Tricia Zunker, the Democratic nominee in May’s special congressional election, said that requirements that voters ask for absentee ballots online, and that they have a witness to verify their identity when they vote, were making the state’s task harder. Zunker would be casting an absentee ballot, having stopped all in-person campaigning.

“I love the tradition of going to the polls, but this is an instance where health and safety have to take priority,” she said.

In Hawaii, the party-run primary scheduled for this weekend has been delayed again. Votes that were set to get counted Saturday will be counted May 23, wiping April 4 off the primary calendar. Wyoming and Alaska, which had also planned party-run primaries for that date, have announced that they will tabulate ballots later in the month.

Ad watch

Amy McGrath, “Cooped Up.”  The very well-funded challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) introduced herself to voters with Hollywood-level production-quality ads. Her latest ad is a little skimpier, on purpose: She is stuck at home, with the noise of her husband and family audible above the campaign music in the background. “Because of the coronavirus, we decided to focus our campaign on helping families and seniors throughout Kentucky,” McGrath says, never mentioning her opponent.

Mitch McConnell, “Amy McGrath Lies.” McGrath’s opponent is using a playbook similar to the Trump campaign’s: accusing critics of focusing on electoral, partisan politics during a crisis. “McGrath fuels fear with lies that even liberal newspapers call false,” a narrator says, while focusing on McConnell’s passage of the coronavirus stimulus package.

Marjorie Greene, “China.” Greene, a conservative activist, is not the best-known or best-funded of the nine Republicans competing in Georgia’s deep-red 14th District. But the ad is a concise distillation of pro-Trump arguments for keeping Democrats out of office in a pandemic era, warning that the opposition party would bring socialism to America if it took power. “President Trump can only do so much while pro-China socialists like AOC are in charge,” Greene says. “President Trump needs me in Washington.” 

Poll watch

Approval of how officials are handling the coronavirus (Siena, 566 New York voters)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo: 87%
Local health department: 76%
Dr. Anthony Fauci: 74%
The CDC: 73%
The House: 54%
The Senate: 43%
President Donald Trump: 41%
Vice President Pence: 41%

Andrew Cuomo has won three elections in New York, and Donald Trump has won zero, so a divergence in how voters view their response to the crisis was to be expected. But Cuomo has pulled partisans who may never have supported him back into the fold, while Trump has not. While 70 percent of Republicans approve of Cuomo’s performance, just 20 percent of Democrats approve of the president’s performance.

Candidate tracker

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders continue to make TV and live-stream appearances from their respective homes and continue to avoid discussing one another unless pressed to. In a Monday night appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” Sanders said he remained in the race because the chance of defeating Biden remained greater than zero.

“There is a path,” Sanders said. “It is, admittedly, a narrow path. But I would tell you, Seth, that there are a lot of people who are supporting me. We have a strong grass-roots movement.”

Biden made his own MSNBC appearance on Monday, making little news but having fun with a question about why he wasn’t more visible: “Thanks for giving me time, so they don’t wonder where I am.” The idea that Biden is hiding from voters, popular online just a week ago, has endured even as Biden has done more interviews (as opposed to live streams) than Sanders.

The Biden campaign also put out its latest video spot about President Trump and the pandemic, contrasting the president’s baseless suggestion that some hospitals may be “hoarding” protective masks with Sunday’s “Meet the Press” interview, where Biden said that invoking the Defense Production Act earlier would have prevented any mask shortages.

President Trump has remained off the trail, with no rallies scheduled yet. But some Republicans used Tuesday to advance a new argument against Democrats — that they had put the country at risk by impeaching the president, handing him a massive, historical distraction in the month that the virus came to America. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Mitch McConnell praised Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas for raising early concerns about the virus.

“It came up while we were tied down on the impeachment trial,” McConnell said. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment.” 

The Republican National Committee went further, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pinpointed Jan. 15 as the arrival of coronavirus in the United States and noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had sent the articles of the impeachment to the Senate — after a controversial negotiating delay — that same day.

The timeline is accurate, but it’s unclear how any of this distracted the White House. Unlike members of the Senate, who needed to be in Washington for the trial, Trump could move freely. He held four rallies between the House’s passage of the articles and their delivery, and he held two rallies (on Jan. 28 and 30) while the trial was underway. The president held six more rallies between the end of the trial and the declaration of emergency, two of them in states (Nevada and South Carolina) that had already canceled their Republican primaries.

Meet a PAC

Unite the Country, the group created late last year after Joe Biden dropped his opposition to a super PAC, raised a few million dollars to run positive ads in early states. That mission is coming to an end, and the PAC is now coordinating with American Bridge, a 10-year-old super PAC initially created to boost President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

Candidates cannot coordinate with super PACs, but super PACs can coordinate with one another, and this is the latest example of organizations with unlimited fundraising ability getting behind Biden. On March 9, Priorities USA, another PAC initially created to help Obama, announced new advertising that would bolster Biden against President Trump; the next day, Biden’s win in the Michigan primary convinced many leading Democrats that the primary was over.

Priorities USA and American Bridge had both been neutral for most of the primary, and while Bernie Sanders said that he would turn down outside help from Mike Bloomberg, he did not say whether he would accept the help of existing super PACs — only that he did not have one, and never would. 

Sanders’s purity test, which helped him build the biggest grass-roots fundraising operation in the history of presidential primaries, was a powerful weapon against Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. For a while, most of Sanders’s rivals, Biden included, made the same pledge. The new comfort with which super PACs are endorsing Biden, and Sanders’s relative silence about them, says plenty about the current state of the primary. The downside of embracing a super PAC has receded, along with Sanders’s shot at the nomination.


… seven days until the Democratic primary in Wisconsin
 … 70 days until the cutoff for picking Democratic delegates
 … 84 days until the final Democratic primary
 … 104 days until the Democratic National Convention
 … 146 days until the Republican National Convention
 … 216 days until the general election

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