Campaigns grapple with uncertainty amid new coronavirus concerns

House Democrats alone have nearly 50 fundraisers this week

Tourists wearing protective masks tour the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Tourists wearing protective masks tour the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:05pm

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ decisions to cancel campaign rallies in Ohio on Tuesday were the highest-profile examples yet of how concerns about the new coronavirus could disrupt campaigns.

While some who had contact with people known to have the virus announced plans to self-quarantine, lawmakers running for reelection so far say they’re monitoring advice from public health officials before deciding their next steps.

But one thing is clear: In the world of campaign staffs huddled in war rooms and candidates out glad-handing and kissing babies, this is uncharted territory.

“There is a heightened sense of urgency in terms of management of campaign staff that I have never seen,” said Alex Slater, a Democratic donor and fundraiser who founded the consulting and PR firm the Clyde Group.

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“Having staff working remotely can often be a real challenge for campaigns where it isn’t for the corporate world,” Slater said. “The very definition of war rooms requires people to be in the same place.”

Late Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee announced its primary debate between Biden and Sanders on Sunday in Phoenix would not have a live audience "at the request of both campaigns and out of an abundance of caution."

"The DNC has been in regular communication with local health officials and the Mayor's office, which advised that we could proceed as planned," DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. "Nevertheless, our number one priority has and will continue to be the safety of our staff, campaigns, Arizonans and all those involved in the debate."

Little other impact so far

With Congress in the nation’s capital this week, the most immediate impact on congressional campaigns could be on previously scheduled fundraisers.

House Democrats alone have nearly 50 fundraising events scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week, and it’s not clear which — and how many — may get canceled. K Street sources said they’d been notified that California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, had canceled a fundraising happy hour scheduled for Wednesday at Acqua Al 2. Her office did not respond to a request for comment. 

New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik also cancelled her three D.C. fundraisers this week, citing public health recommendations and recent confirmation of coronavirus cases in her district and in the nation's capital.

Slater, who was a fundraiser for former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign and is now raising money for Biden’s White House effort, said that virtual, or online, fundraising events may become more common this cycle.

“Where in the past it had been an experiment, now maybe they will become a central way of holding fundraisers,” he said.   

Aside from fundraisers, congressional campaigns aren’t holding as many large events as presidential candidates because it’s still early in the election cycle. A handful of senators running for reelection said Tuesday their campaigns had not yet been impacted.

“I’m still traveling back and forth. I’m using better hygiene practices, probably,” said Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue, whose reelection race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as Likely Republican. “I’m washing my hands more, I’m using more Purell and other things. But, no, we haven’t decided to hold back on anything.”

Another Georgia Senate hopeful, GOP Rep. Doug Collins, is the only candidate in a competitive race so far who has voluntarily self-quarantined. Collins, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, is waging a primary challenge against GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to replace former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. Loeffler's campaign did not return a request for comment.

Collins isolated himself after learning he came was in contact with someone at the Conservative Political Action Conference who later tested positive for the new virus.

The quarantine has not had a significant impact on his campaign, said Collins spokesman Dan McLagan. Collins has been conducting a number of interviews over Skype and his son was helping him learn how to go live on Facebook. Collins is doing a live Q&A on the platform Tuesday night.

What's next?

McLagan noted the campaign hasn’t been impacted because Collins was supposed to be in D.C. this week. But that changes for lawmakers next week, when they head home for a previously scheduled recess.

It’s unclear how many lawmakers will opt for virtual events over in-person ones. At this point congressional campaigns aren’t as active as presidential campaigns. Still, those in competitive races are keeping an eye on the ongoing situation.

“We want to follow the appropriate guidance and see how things go. But we’re certainly monitoring it," said Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable senator running in 2020. “We haven’t cancelled anything as of yet but we’re sure looking.” 

The Democratic and Republican committees that oversee House and Senate campaigns have not provided any guidance to candidates on how to proceed. Campaigns instead are closely watching for advice from public health officials.

In remarks to reporters over the weekend, President Donald Trump had said he expected to go ahead with campaign rallies, though none were scheduled late Tuesday afternoon. Asked about rallies at a Tuesday briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said:

“I think that will be a decision that’s made literally on a day-to-day basis ... I’m very confident that the campaign will take the very best information and make the very best decision going forward,” Pence said.

Both Biden and Sanders cancelled their rallies after Ohio officials called on them to do so. Ohio GOP Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency on Monday after three Ohioans tested positive for the virus. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said Tuesday that more than 100 voting locations, originally planned for senior citizen residential facilities, would be moved before primary contests there March 17.

The state's Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said Biden and Sanders cancelled the events willingly; the party didn’t have to ask them to do it.

“I think the governor was very clear,” Pepper said. “He said it was up to them, but he was very clear about large events being problematic. I think he was right to say that.” 

Pepper said the virus would put a damper on late rallies and fundraising events in the final days before next Tuesday’s primary. But his bigger concern was Election Day chaos. Pepper said Democrats were tentatively hopeful about turnout, but he worried that fears of the virus might keep people away from the polls.

Ohio and Illinois both feature competitive congressional primaries next week, and campaigns are still determining their next steps.

Like the presidential campaigns, congressional candidates are taking their cues from state officials.

Bridgette Tupes, the campaign spokeswoman for Ohio Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty, said the campaign is still determining what to do ahead of next week’s primary against fellow Democrat Morgan Harper.

“We’re still in the evaluation process, and we’re taking advice from the Ohio Department of Health along with other public health officials,” Tupes said. 

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey said his campaign has been following guidelines from health officials, including diligent hand washing and telling people who feel sick to take care of themselves.

“We’re going to abide by ... what the public health officials in Massachusetts tell us is the wisest way to proceed,” Markey said when asked how his campaign could be impacted.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto said Tuesday that she was not aware of any guidance from the committee about how campaigns should navigate the virus. She also said she had not yet fielded many questions from other senators about how to proceed.

"But then today’s only Tuesday," she added.

Niels Lesniewski and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.