April Berg, a Democrat and Everett school board member, was trying to get elected to the Legislature without being in the same room as her campaign manager. COVID-19 and social-distance guidelines had kept them apart.
Berg, vying for a 44th District open seat in the House, was in Mill Creek. Katharine Gillen, just graduated from Whitman College, lived in Walla Walla. They were spending a lot of time on the phone and emailing, when Berg had an idea.
“You know what? I do have this open room,” Gillen recalled her boss saying. If they lived together, they could be in the same “bubble,” social distancing with outsiders but not each other.
Gillen moved in last weekend, joining a household that includes Berg’s husband and four of their six children.
“It’s definitely kind of different boundaries than in your typical employer and employee relationship, but it’s worked out really well,” Gillen said. She can poke her head around a corner when she needs to ask Berg a question or show her a draft of something.
“We get more done,” Berg agreed.
The 46-year-old candidate and 22-year-old campaign manager even enjoy the same TV shows, including their guilty pleasure: the reality show “90 Day Fiancé.”
That’s not to say all the challenges of the campaign are gone as Washington’s Aug. 4 primary looms, with ballots now arriving at voters’ homes. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made almost every candidate’s life more difficult — but also sparked innovation as many campaigns shift, like everything else these days, online.
“The political sale by candidates is made, typically, belly button to belly button,” said Christopher Gergen, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp.
That’s when candidates can make a personal connection with voters, hear their concerns and just as important, allow them to feel heard, and see if campaign messaging is working.
Now, such interactions — whether on voters’ doorsteps or at rallies, meet-and-greets, endorsement interviews and fundraising dinners — carry risk and might violate Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, depending on the reopening phase a county is in.
Defying the Democratic governor’s order has become a mode of campaigning for some Republican candidates hoping to replace him, who paint Inslee’s efforts to limit the spread of the virus as a violation of individual freedom. Culp, police chief of Republic, in Ferry County, is holding a steady stream of rallies and meet-and-greets, as is anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.
When the governor initially limited gatherings to 250 people, Eyman said, “I put out an invitation saying, ‘Let’s make it 251.’ ” Last week, he invited all of Inslee’s challengers in the race to have a primary-night party together.
Yet, even several GOP gubernatorial contenders are grappling with pandemic-induced limitations. Culp, for instance, might have gone doorbelling in swing areas, but his campaign manager reckoned: “Even if the governor magically tomorrow said, ‘It’s OK for life to go back to normal,’ you’re still going to have people wary of strangers showing up on their doorstep.”
Raul Garcia, a Yakima emergency room doctor who stands out by wearing a mask and who has been endorsed by party leaders, said it’s tough to raise funds without being able to have dinners with hundreds of people. The current economic distress makes it even harder, added state Sen. Phil Fortunato, another candidate in the crowded top-two primary.
Such realities pose the most obstacles for candidates who are relative unknowns or those up against incumbents, all trying to get their name and message out in a year when the presidential race and twin crises of COVID-19 and protests over police brutality dominate the news.
Many candidates are doubling down on alternatives to face-to-face interactions. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in people phoning,” said political consultant Cathy Allen. Candidates usually hate dialing for dollars but, stuck at home, they’re doing so, or just calling to introduce themselves.
Voters are home to get the calls and receptive to interruption. “People are bored,” Allen said. That’s why she thinks they’d be receptive to doorbelling, for the general election if not the primary, provided social distancing guidelines are followed — a theory backed up by online focus groups she and colleagues have facilitated.
Campaigns also are leaning more on advertising, direct mail and yard signs. But this is the year of Zoom. Campaigns, and those who vet them, are testing how they can use it. There are digital meet-and-greets, endorsement interviews and a new political genre: the DIY candidate show.
Lawyer Mike Vaska, head of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, planned to announce a challenge to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson in mid-March. Just then, Inslee let it be known that he was planning to curtail gatherings in light of the coronavirus, the reality of which was sinking in weeks after the U.S.’ then-first known death from the disease happened in Washington.
Vaska waited some days and called former Gov. Dan Evans, a mentor, for advice. “I never had to run in a pandemic,” Vaska remembered Evans telling him. “There’s no playbook. You just have to make it up.”
Vaska, 59, said he embraced the challenge and jumped in.
He went to a couple of rallies, including one in a wheat field where he said no one was wearing masks. “Frankly, I was pretty uncomfortable,” he said, and decided, “OK, I think that’s it.”
He turned his Issaquah basement into a studio and started livesteaming what he initially called “Sunday suppers,” renamed after a schedule change to “Monday suppers.” There’s no food involved, but they’re held around dinnertime and consist of Vaska talking about issues with guests, who Zoom in.
His wife, Camille Vaska, introduces him. Their sons, who are home before starting graduate school in the fall, read viewer questions and troubleshoot the inevitable technical problems, like when the screen goes blank because a guest can’t get the video function working.
Despite the glitches, Vaska said the shows have attracted viewers and donors. Emblematic of the way the pandemic permeates every aspect of campaigning, his most-watched episode, bringing in 2,400 views, featured attorney Joel Ard discussing his two lawsuits contesting the necessity and constitutionality of the stay-home order. A Superior Court judge in late June denied the request for a restraining order in one suit, and the second is awaiting a hearing in federal court.
Vaska said he has not taken a position, except that he believes as someone running for attorney general, he should follow the law. But the show has let him question the order without violating it. During his most recent episode, he asserted the need to balance public health and jobs, and suggested the state was being run as a “banana republic,” with no time limit on the governor’s use of emergency power or input from the Legislature. He promised to serve as a watchdog if elected.
“I’m having fun with it,” Vaska said of the “suppers.” But he misses the ability to read a crowd and get feedback, as he did when he ran for attorney general in 2004. After giving a speech at one event about the number of lawsuit payouts the state was making, someone came up to him afterward and said it was good but needed to be trimmed, a lot.
Following that advice “really made a difference,” Vaska said, though he lost in the end.
Similarly, Berg said she’s feels the loss of the kind of events she’s used to attending as a school board candidate, such as last year’s July Fourth parade in downtown Everett. Mingling among thousands of voters, she handed out T-shirts and flyers.
“It gets people to know who you are, and honestly to know you’re a real candidate,” said the Mill Creek Democrat. The same goes for when voters see you at their door, handing out campaign literature.
She has talked at a couple of Black Lives Matter rallies, where people generally wore masks, but didn’t directly campaign and has otherwise steered clear of physical interactions, she said.
Berg views phoning as the best substitute for that direct communication with voters. She said her approach is more scripted.
When you’re at someone’s home, you have visual and audio cues, explained political consultant Christian Sinderman. Is there a baby crying in the background? Another candidate’s yard sign in front? Or maybe really nice rose bushes you can use as a conversation starter?
On the phone, Berg has also found, voters aren’t as quick to share what’s on their minds. But she tries to stay conversational. “I make sure I’m always smiling.”
She also smiles a lot when she’s doing her livestreamed “kitchen conversations.” Like Vaska, she invites guests via Zoom. Her biggest hit, drawing more than 800 views, was a conversation entitled “Black in the ‘Burbs,” which reflects her reality as a Black woman living in Snohomish County for 23 years.
Sometimes her shows get only a few dozen views, but hey, in normal times she would hold campaign get-togethers in coffee shops and 10 to 15 people would show up.
Early on, Berg realized she would need to rethink every topic she planned to focus on — transportation, health care, education — in light of the pandemic. Instead of just advocating for more public transportation, she’d have to consider how to keep drivers and passengers safe. When it comes to schools, the topic of her latest kitchen conversation, she’d have to address plans for reopening and finding adequate personal protective equipment.
She said the No. 1 question she’s asked stems from COVID-19’s economic carnage: “What are we going to do about the budget shortfall?” Her answer: “We really need to talk about our regressive tax structure.”
She finds people somewhat more receptive to the idea now. “I can finish my sentence,” she said.
For Beth Doglio, the 55-year-old Democratic legislator running in a highly competitive primary for an open seat in the 10th Congressional District, one of the oddest aspects of campaigning in a pandemic is the inability to physically go to communities she would represent. The state representative, who lives in Olympia, said she’d like to visit small towns such as Frederickson, Graham and Fircrest to find out what’s on the minds of residents.
She could do a virtual gathering but it wouldn’t be the same, she said. “People are pretty Zoomed out.”
But she can’t really get away from Zoom, and finds it particularly useful for phone banking sessions with volunteers. Campaign staff train volunteers on Zoom and then have everyone leave it on, sound muted, while they make phone calls to voters promoting Doglio’s progressive credentials. The idea, Doglio said, is to offer some of the camaraderie that normally happens in a big room, where pizza is ordered and volunteers make calls side by side.
As a recent Zoom phone banking session showed, volunteers needed the platform as much to ask for help with the automated dialing system they were using as for camaraderie. When they ran into trouble, they unmuted themselves and related their problems.
Doglio, who appeared at the beginning, did her best to create campaign spirit. “Having so many of you here tonight to make phone calls is just fantastic,” she said. “It’s really the only way we have to reach voters right now and it’s super, super important to get the message out there.”
With primary ballots about to land in mailboxes, endorsements were coming in, including from an array of legislative districts’ Democrats, the Nisqually Indian tribal council and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, she told them.
They may not be in a campaign office, having fun hanging out together, she added, but “the momentum that we’re building, we can feel it.”
Getting and returning your ballot: Most ballots were mailed late last week. If you are registered to vote and don’t receive your ballot by midweek, contact your local elections office. There are several ways to return your ballot: go to a ballot drop box; use an accessible voting site if you have certain challenges; mail it in. Postage is not required. County elections office websites and staff have information on drop box locations. Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked no later than Primary Election Day, Aug. 4.
King County: 206-296-8683 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The county has voting centers available for those who need assistance or have missed deadlines, but officials ask that those who are able to use online tools do so.
Snohomish County: 425-388-3444 or www.snohomishcountywa.gov/224/Elections-Voter-Registration
More information: voter.votewa.gov