Coronavirus Pandemic Forces House Primary Challengers To Get Creative With Campaigning

Against tougher odds, progressive candidates take their calls for a stronger social safety net online.

A veteran Bronx public school principal held a virtual forum with local families on March 27 to discuss strategies for teaching kids at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. His first message was that they are engaged in “trauma schooling,” which is unlikely to match the rigor of either school or traditional home-schooling.

“You shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t replicate school in your home,” he said. “You’re not supposed to. It’s not designed for that.”

The scene was not entirely out of the ordinary during the current public health crisis. What made it unique is that the educator was Jamaal Bowman, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel (D) in New York’s congressional primary election on June 23. Engel has represented parts of the Bronx and Westchester County since 1989.

Bowman is spending long days on the phone with potential donors and prospective voters, hosting video chats to keep the public engaged, and trying to help stranded residents get the help they need. All the while, he and his wife, confined to their home in Yonkers, just outside New York City, find the time to home-school their two young children.

“Campaigning, formally and informally, is nonstop,” Bowman told HuffPost. “This is the home stretch, and we’re trying to do everything in our power to connect with as many voters as possible.”

Unseating an incumbent member of Congress in a primary race for a seat that is not competitive in a general election is a rare feat in ordinary times.

Trying to make it happen during the COVID-19 pandemic is a downright Herculean task.

“Any time you have a pause in campaigning, to a large degree, that benefits the status quo.”

- Tyler Law, Democratic campaign consultant

For candidates already struggling to generate name recognition ― let alone win voters’ support ― the pandemic has erected numerous barriers. Knocking doors ― a key source of strength for insurgent campaigns ― is out of the question, speaking at public events is all but forbidden, and the small-dollar donors who power the races are strapped for cash.

“Any time you have a pause in campaigning, to a large degree, that benefits the status quo,” said Tyler Law, a Democratic campaign consultant who previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps incumbent House Democrats keep their seats.

Even if primary challengers find new ways to get their message out, potential voters may not be paying attention to news unrelated to the pandemic, Law suggested.

There’s also evidence that voters who do tune in crave a sense of security and are thus more likely to stick with an incumbent or an establishment favorite. Two political scientists found in a research paper, for example, that before March 17 ― by which time the country had already begun shutting down in response to the novel coronavirus and individual cases were less remarkable ― any coverage of a coronavirus case in local news media significantly hurt the performance of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an anti-establishment populist, in those locations. In counties where local media reported a case before the primary, the experts estimate that Sanders’ share of the final vote dropped by between 1 and 13 percentage points.

“In times of crisis, there is a flight to safety,” Law said.

Jamaal Bowman, seen here speaking at an event about Black maternal mortality in July, is now relying on Facebook and other technology to court prospective voters.
Jamaal Bowman, seen here speaking at an event about Black maternal mortality in July, is now relying on Facebook and other technology to court prospective voters.
Jamaal Bowman for Congress

Innovating Solutions In An Unprecedented Crisis

Primary challengers and their backers acknowledge that the changing circumstances pose difficulties, but also take comfort in what they maintain are advantages.

They enjoy the support of small-dollar donors who are accustomed to contributing from the safety of email, rather than in an in-person fundraiser. The candidates and the staff they attract tend to be younger and more comfortable with the digital technology needed to disseminate a campaign message remotely.

And of course, they see in the current crisis ― and what they consider Congress’ inadequate response to it ― the ultimate validation of their progressive worldviews. With 6 million workers claiming unemployment benefits for two weeks in a row, they argue, “Medicare for All” looks more appealing than employer-sponsored insurance.

“This crisis has revealed all of the flaws and gaps in our economy and our health care system,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, which is backing Bowman and three other candidates seeking to replace incumbent Democrats. “There is this need for a new generation of leadership that’s going to put forward solutions from the very beginning that match the scale, scope and urgency of the problems that we’re facing.”

The organization, famous for its role in New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win in June 2018, is stepping up efforts to assist the challengers. The group is soliciting donations for the candidates from its formidable email list more frequently and hosting regular discussions with candidates on its Facebook page via video livestream.

For Bowman, virtual campaigning and regular Facebook live broadcasts, along with boosts from Justice Democrats, appear to have yielded tangible results.

“Bowman, who is Black, also implies that Engel, who is white, has spent so much time in Washington that he is out of touch with the majority-minority district.”

The first quarter of the year was Bowman’s best fundraising period to date, bringing in about $185,000, according to the campaign. The campaign said it raised $18,000 on March 31 alone, making it the second-highest fundraising day after Bowman’s launch in June.

Since the start of the lockdown, Bowman and his volunteers estimate that they have made over 25,000 calls to voters in the district. Bowman maintains that they are reaching more people as well, because more people are at home.

Engel, who already raised over $1.1 million by the end of 2019, has a relatively liberal domestic record. He is more hawkish on foreign policy, an area over which he has considerable influence as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bowman, who is Black, also implies that Engel, who is white, has spent so much time in Washington that he is out of touch with the majority-minority district. It’s evident, Bowman argued, in what he sees as Engel’s low profile during the coronavirus pandemic that is hitting the impoverished district especially hard.

“I don’t see Eliot Engel saying anything about these issues or leading from the front in any way,” Bowman told HuffPost.

Engel pointed to his work ensuring the inclusion of federal funds for New York’s safety net hospitals in Congress’ coronavirus relief package in late March, his calls for more federal money for the state’s community health centers that serve low-income people, and his letter to the Trump administration demanding an end to the foreign export of personal protective equipment given the shortages in the U.S.

“Even as he focuses on petty politics during a crisis that has already killed more than 10,000 New Yorkers, it’s clear Jamaal Bowman isn’t paying any attention to what’s going on,” Engel said in a statement.

Consumer rights attorney Morgan Harper, who's challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), estimates she has delivered 1,000 absentee ballots to quarantined voters in Columbus.
Consumer rights attorney Morgan Harper, who's challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), estimates she has delivered 1,000 absentee ballots to quarantined voters in Columbus.
Morgan Harper for Congress

Navigating New Election Deadlines

Sanders did not endorse Bowman or any of the other House primary challengers still in the running before withdrawing from the presidential primary last week.

In the hopes of increasing the influence of his progressive platform, however, Sanders has appealed to voters to cast ballots for him in their states’ primaries. That could help candidates like Bowman lower down on the ballot by boosting progressive turnout.

Bowman would not stand to benefit from being on the ticket with Sanders if the state hadn’t postponed its presidential primary in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In late March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pushed back the presidential primary from April 28 to June 23, to coincide with the date of its congressional primaries.

But Cuomo, who endorsed Biden early in the race, enacted a budget earlier this month that allows state election officials appointed by each party to remove candidates from the ballot in their respective primaries who have dropped out of the race. New York’s Democratic election officials are already signaling that they plan to exercise this power. If Biden is the only name on the ballot, the elections are canceled by default. Under that scenario, Bowman would not be able to take advantage of Sanders’ coattails.

For other primary challengers, deferred elections provide challenges of another sort.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) postponed his state’s congressional primaries from March 17 to April 28. Voting will be conducted exclusively through mail-in absentee ballots.

That gave consumer rights attorney Morgan Harper, a Justice Democrats endorsee, an extra month and a half to raise awareness of her bid to unseat Rep. Joyce Beatty, who has represented Columbus, Ohio, since 2013.

The challenge for Harper is that in lieu of automatically sending voters absentee ballots, Ohio requires people to explicitly request an absentee ballot in order to vote by mail ahead of the new deadline.

Harper calls the system a form of “voter suppression,” but she’s doing what she can to adjust. The campaign has disseminated instructions on its website and through social media for printing out and completing the absentee ballots. It has even translated the instructions into Somali and Nepali for the two immigrant communities with a significant presence in Columbus.

And it’s been willing to drop them off at people’s doors and submit them to the local election office on behalf of voters. The campaign estimates that it has submitted 1,000 absentee ballots through its system of distribution and collection.

Harper, who wears gloves and a custom face mask with her campaign logo when she ventures out in public, has taken advantage of her contact with quarantined voters to help people struggling to afford their necessities and manage tasks like filing their taxes and applying for unemployment benefits. She and her team have even volunteered at local food banks that are currently experiencing higher demand.

“It’s not that we do what it takes to address the emergency immediately at hand or think about the most systemic solutions — it’s both.”

- Morgan Harper, consumer rights attorney

It doubles as an opportunity to discuss her vision of a more equitable society where no one who falls on hard times ever needs to worry about having health care or enough to eat. Like Bowman, she discusses those themes in Facebook livestreams that she has been hosting once a week.

“It’s not that we do what it takes to address the emergency immediately at hand or think about the most systemic solutions ― it’s both,” Harper told HuffPost. “We have to talk about policy solutions, like stimulus payments that need to be getting into people’s hand to address their financial needs right away, but also think about how we prevent a pandemic from having such detrimental impacts on our community the next time. And that’s going to take systemic changes.”

One way in which Harper has adjusted her pitch during the pandemic is by pausing her criticism of Beatty.

A report in The Intercept shined a light on Beatty’s allegedly ethically dubious conduct in early March, including profiting from a 2013 property sale that Columbus’ downtown zoning board enabled while Beatty’s husband Otto served on the board. As minority leader in the state House in 2008, Beatty also opposed reforming the state’s payday lending industry until the Columbus Dispatch revealed that her husband, a former state lawmaker, was lobbying on the industry’s behalf.

Shortly after the article came out, Harper cited it on Twitter as an example of Beatty profiting “again and again at the expense of our community.”

Harper hasn’t tweeted about Beatty since then. Asked whether she would contrast Beatty’s response to the pandemic with her own two-tiered approach, Harper declined to comment.

“I’ve been really focused on talking to prospective voters here in the third district,” she said.

The Beatty campaign declined to comment on Harper’s March criticism of Beatty. At the time that The Intercept report came out, Otto Beatty told the Columbus Dispatch that while he had spoken positively about permitting the development that enabled him to sell a downtown property for $800,000, he had recused himself from the zoning board vote itself.

And in 2008, when the Dispatch reported on then-state Rep. Joyce Beatty’s resistance to some payday lending reforms, she countered that she had begun considering the legislation in 2007 before her husband began lobbying for the industry.

Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse is try to unseat Rep. Richie Neal in Massachusetts' Democratic primary while managing his city's COVID-19 response.
Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse is try to unseat Rep. Richie Neal in Massachusetts' Democratic primary while managing his city's COVID-19 response.
Alex Morse for Congress Campaign

Running A City While Running For Congress

Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse, who is seeking to unseat influential Rep. Richie Neal, has perhaps the most difficult task of any of the primary challengers trying to get their message out during the crisis.

Running a 40,000-person city where nearly one-third of residents live in poverty is challenging during normal times, but the onset of the pandemic has ratcheted up Morse’s workload and deprived him of time he might normally spend campaigning.

“One hundred percent of my time has been focused on our city’s response to the global pandemic,” Morse told HuffPost.

The city became a coronavirus hotspot overnight in late March when it emerged that a state-run home for aging veterans was enduring an outbreak of the disease among its residents and staff. As of Wednesday, 37 residents of the home had died from the disease.

While Morse does not have jurisdiction over the state-run facility, whistleblowers on the facility’s staff alerted him to the pandemic’s spread, allowing him to notify the state government.

In some ways, the crisis has allowed Morse to demonstrate executive skills that residents of Western Massachusetts’ vast 1st Congressional District might not otherwise have seen.

He began taking steps to shut down the city earlier than some leaders of larger cities and regions, ordering the closure of public schools on March 13 and shuttering large retailers on March 17. Holyoke also instituted drastic “10-10-10” social distancing measures, requiring residents to stay ten feet away from one another, restricting the number of people in essential businesses to 10 at a time, and limiting the time in those establishments to 10 minutes per person.

“Our differences on health care are more pronounced than ever before.”

- Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Alex Morse (D)

At the same time, Morse has mobilized city resources to fill in in whatever way possible for what he considers an inadequate response from the federal government. Among other measures, he’s kept seven schools open to distribute breakfast and lunch for families that need it, and distributed 1,500 laptops to city students who lack computers at home.

Morse is still speaking up though about what he sees as the problems with the corporation-heavy federal stimulus package Congress passed at the end of March. He is calling for a “people’s bailout” that, among other things, puts a moratorium on rent payments. (Like Bowman, he nonetheless told HuffPost that he would have voted for the bill given the prospect that the alternative would have been inaction.)

He also argues that the pandemic has made his criticism of Neal, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and has represented the district since 1989, even more relevant.

In particular, Morse lambastes Neal for holding up bipartisan legislation last December that would have dramatically reduced “surprise” medical billing. Republicans and Democrats in both chambers were closing in on a bill to limit the practice, in which select groups of specialist doctors who are not part of a hospital’s insurance network send patients multi-thousand dollar bills after undergoing surgery or another medical procedure.

Then, at the 11th hour, Neal, whose committee holds only nominal jurisdiction over “surprise” billing, voiced objections. He introduced legislation with his Republican counterpart effectively prolonging debate about the bill into 2020. Congress has yet to act, even to pass legislation for the narrow subset of cases where patients undergoing treatment for COVID-19 receive a surprise bill.

Morse blames Neal’s reliance on campaign cash from the private equity sector, which has invested heavily in physicians’ groups that employ “surprise” billing. Employees of the private equity firm Blackstone, which owns one such physician staffing company, TeamHealth, have contributed $43,000 to Neal’s campaign this election cycle alone.

And Neal is an opponent of Medicare for All, the merits of which, Morse, like other progressives, believes the crisis has made that much more obvious.

“Our differences on health care are more pronounced than ever before,” Morse said.

The Neal campaign declined to address Morse’s specific critiques.

“While Alex Morse plays politics during this global pandemic, Richie Neal is focused on his job: leading the effort to stabilize the economy, ensuring hospitals have the resources they need, putting money directly into the pockets of workers and small businesses and looking ahead to a robust stimulus package,” said Neal campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton.

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