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COVID-19 Drastically Changes Political Campaigning in N.J.

With stay-at-home orders in place indefinitely, phone calls, emails, online chats and Zoom fundraisers have replaced going door-to-door, holding rallies and staging events to meet prospective supporters and donors.

by Jonathan D. Salant, NJ Advance Media Group / May 4, 2020
St. Petersburg City Council members conduct their Thursday meeting via Zoom. (Josh Solomon/Tampa Bay Times) TNS

(TNS) — No fundraisers. No rallies. No door knocking. No handshakes. No public appearances.

New Jersey’s pandemic primary, now postponed to July 7, is being waged without any of the traditional tools of an American election.

“This is a new playbook for a campaign,” said Democratic consultant Peter Fenn, who has worked on congressional campaigns for more than 50 years. "Folks have to get a lot more creative and think outside the box a lot more than ever before.

“It’s changed the name of the game.”

While the state’s 2001 gubernatorial race between Democrat James McGreevey and Republican Bret Schundler was put on hold for weeks after 9/11, both candidates resumed their political activities within a month.

This time, there is no date for resuming normal campaigning. With stay-at-home orders remaining in place indefinitely, telephone calls, emails, and online chats and Zoom fundraisers have replaced going door-to-door, holding rallies and staging events to meet prospective supporters and donors.

Like the candidates, voters have been told to stay at home. Gov. Phil Murphy said he has not decided whether to require that all voters cast their ballots by mail or expand the use of absentee ballots and open just a small number of in-person polling places.

Even signing petitions to get a referendum on the ballot is now verboten. Murphy recently signed an executive order requiring signatures to be obtained electronically and for county and municipal clerks to accept such petitions.

What was once routine is now controversial. Linden Mayor Derek Armstead attempted to fend off criticism after photos showed him talking to neighborhood residents, accompanied by 6th Ward council candidate Joao Goncalves.

“That personal connection, which we know so well, is impossible in today’s environment,” said Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and the director of its Center for Public Interest Polling.

That assumes voters are paying attention when the coronavirus so dominates daily life.

“It will be tough to solicit new donors or get new volunteers in an environment where people are probably focused on other aspects of their lives," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a Washington-based publication that tracks congressional races.

New Jersey’s hottest congressional race, South Jersey’s 2nd District, finds Democratic primary opponents Amy Kennedy and Brigid Callahan Harrison on line rather than on the street.

Kennedy, an educator and wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., is holding Facebook Live events on the coronavirus. A recent guest was Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who succeeded her husband in the House. On Thursday, the topic is South Jersey tourism.

Along with the traditional tabs on her campaign website — Meet the Candidate, Media, Donate, Volunteer — Kennedy added a new one — COVID-19 Resources.

Harrison, meanwhile, started responding daily to whatever President Donald Trump happened to say at his daily coronavirus press conference. “South Jersey’s response to Trump” is delivered via her Youtube channel.

“The thing that is lacking, of course, we can’t get our message directly to voters in a meaningful and personal way,” said Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair University.

The virus hit home for Harrison in another way. Her husband, Paul Meilak, was hospitalized with COVID-19.

A third Democrat in the race, former congressional aide Will Cunningham, has unique asks in his fundraising email: Money for peer-to-peer texts and online training sessions.

On the Republican side, Bob Patterson, a former acting associate commissioner of the Social Security Administration under Trump, is the last remaining primary challenger to party-switching Rep. Jeff Van Drew.

The coronavirus has forced Patterson to spend his time indoors on the phone instead of outdoors meeting voters, and to use the U.S. Postal Service and email rather than face-to-face contact.

“It would be great to be out there knocking on doors,” Patterson said. “We’re adapting. We’re improvising and we’re using the tools we can use.”

“By emailing, telephone calling and USPS, you can make a lot of hay,” he said.

Patterson is one of several challengers finding it even harder than usual to take on an incumbent. Those already in office have had a months-long head start in raising money and meeting voters.

"It’s harder for challengers to get known without the traditional pieces of a campaign, including rallies and retail politics,” Gonzales said.

That’s the problem confronting community activist Lawrence Hamm, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in the Democratic primary.

Hamm had counted on the same grassroots activism that propelled Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. Indeed, Hamm ran Sanders’ New Jersey presidential campaign in New Jersey.

Instead, Hamm is using social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. He is sending out mass emails and texts. People are calling voters from home rather than from campaign headquarters. He is holding virtual town hall meetings online.

“Everything we can possibly do electronically we’re doing,” Hamm said. “We’re fortunate we live in the age of technology. You have to make an adjustment."

And one of the Republicans seeking the nomination to take on Booker, Rik Mehta, found people cared more about his background as a pharmacist and former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official than his status as a Senate candidate.

“The coronavirus has just focused everyone’s attention in a particular area,” Mehta said. “My background is in public health. It gives me an opportunity to voice our message more strongly.”

Even plans for the general election have been put on hold. Supporters and party activists were at work now to identify supporters for November and make lists of people to get to the polls.

“Three months ago, I was all excited about efforts where you have an army of volunteers, you put a lot of money into door-to-door canvassing, you’re identifying your vote early, you’re doing all this ground work,” Fenn said. “How do you do that when you can’t knock on doors?”

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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