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Coronavirus election delays are changing dynamics for campaigns

Budgeting more difficult, and challengers could face steeper hill

Democrat Kim Olson is in a primary runoff in Texas' 24th District, which has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Democrat Kim Olson is in a primary runoff in Texas' 24th District, which has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Kim Olson is going to need some new postcards.

Last week, the Texas Democrat’s campaign stopped sending postcards reminding voters about a May 26 primary runoff once it became increasingly clear the election might not happen as scheduled.

That became official Friday night, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the runoffs until July 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Olson, a retired Air Force colonel competing for the Democratic nomination in the 24th District, one of the Democrats’ top 2020 targets, had to adjust. And campaigns across the country are doing the same.

The change in Texas underscored how the pandemic could disrupt the races that will affect which party controls Congress next year.

So far, postponed primaries have gotten modest attention because earlier contests have already given former Vice President Joe Biden a commanding delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential nomination fight.

But when it comes to picking nominees for House and Senate races, 42 states have not yet held congressional primaries, and it’s an open question when some will. So as campaigns try to figure out how to reach voters in the age of social distancing, they’re also looking at an uncertain calendar.

“The No. 1 question right now is not about campaigning, but are we going to have elections?” Democratic digital strategist Tim Lim said last week. “It’s so hard to set a strategy when you don’t know what the rules are.”

Potential political impact

Altered and postponed elections could affect how campaigns operate, how they communicate with voters, and which candidate has an advantage.

The special election in California’s 25th District, set for May 12, is now “an all mail ballot election,” per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order on Friday. The Democratic nominee, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, said she would now include information about casting mail-in ballots in her campaign messaging.

“We will definitely be including some voter education in our early effort on this,” said Smith, who faces Republican Navy veteran Mike Garcia. Before the pandemic, the election was expected to grab the national spotlight as a harbinger of 2020 contests, but Smith acknowledged that voters are not focused on the race.

“We know that this may not be front of mind for everybody right now,” Smith said. “What impact that might have on turnout, we don’t know.”

Garcia, a former fighter pilot, said voters are looking for thoughtful, steady leadership.

“With our election fast approaching and most voters at home, we are engaging voters directly via virtual-town halls,” he said.

Postponing an election could benefit the primary candidate who has a financial advantage, such as Democratic Senate hopefuls Amy McGrath in Kentucky or MJ Hegar in Texas, since they will have the resources to wage a long campaign. That advantage could be compounded during the pandemic, when television and digital ads become primary ways to reach voters sheltered in their homes.

But their primary opponents, state Rep. Charles Booker in Kentucky and state Sen. Royce West in Texas, both believe they can still be competitive.

West, though, acknowledged that a delayed primary could be a problem heading into November.

“The closer the runoff gets to the general election, the more of an advantage it will give to [Republican incumbent John] Cornyn,” West said Monday.

While primaries can test and strengthen candidates, prolonged primary contests could also benefit the incumbent by delaying general election attacks. Money that might be available to use in the general election could also remain untapped while primaries drag on.

Democratic lawyer Mike Siegel, who is seeking a rematch with Texas GOP Rep. Michael McCaul but has to get through a primary runoff first, noted that some Democratic groups and donors did not want to take sides in the primary. So a delayed runoff means those resources won’t be available to take on McCaul until much later.

In a ‘holding pattern’

Before Abbott’s decision on Friday, campaigns in Texas were struggling to figure out how to approach the runoffs.

Rachel Perry, Olson’s campaign manager, said in a Friday interview before the announcement that her team was in a “holding pattern.” Olson’s runoff opponent, former local school board member Candace Valenzuela, was facing the same dilemma.

“We’re kind of in this moment where we’re frozen a little bit,” Valenzuela’s campaign manager Geoff Simpson said.

Uncertainty around election dates makes it difficult for campaigns to budget resources — a task exacerbated by an expected drop in fundraising due to the crisis. Amid that uncertainty, campaigns are also trying to shift to completely virtual operations.

“This totally throws their primary budget out the window,” one GOP strategist said.

Another unknown factor is how long the pandemic will last. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that it is not yet known whether the virus will decline in warmer weather. So the crisis could still be unfolding in June or July, when most rescheduled primaries are due to be held.

Perry said a twice-postponed election would be “devastating,” and would have “a really disastrous impact on turnout.”

The possibility that the crisis could roil elections for months, not weeks, has increased calls to expand access to voting by mail. Thirty-three states currently allow voters to vote absentee without giving an excuse, but the rules for applying for ballots and voting by mail vary by each state.

Upcoming elections

Congressional primaries in Illinois were held on March 17, but Ohio, which was due to hold them the same day, made a last-minute decision to delay until June 2. Alabama’s primary runoffs, which include the competitive GOP Senate race, have been moved from March 31 to July 14. Mississippi also postponed a House runoff from March 31 to June 23.

The picture is similar for April.

Maryland postponed its April 28 primaries until June 2. The special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings will still happen, only voting will be entirely by mail. Pennsylvania officials are working to postpone April 28 primaries until June 2 as well, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

New York is supposed to hold a special election to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Collins on April 28, the same day as the state’s presidential primary. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said last week that he had not thought about moving the elections.

Seven states were scheduled to hold their congressional primaries in May. Two others — Texas and North Carolina — had scheduled primary runoffs, and California is hosting the 25th District special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill.

Besides Texas, elections in North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana primaries have been postponed until the summer, however.

Still on schedule are primaries in West Virginia, Idaho, Oregon, Nebraska and Georgia. Oregon uses only mail-in ballots and has no in-person voting, so it is the least likely to be disrupted.

Georgia, which has primaries for a Democratic Senate nomination and in two hotly contested House races, also allows all voters who want mail-in ballots to request them. So some candidates were doubtful the May 19 election would be postponed.

“We are preparing for a contingency where most or all of the voting is by mail, and we will still run a massive field program, but it will be decentralized and remote,” said Jon Ossoff, a Democrat seeking to unseat GOP Sen. David Perdue.

Eric Aspengren, Nebraska Democrat Ann Ashford’s campaign manager, also did not expect the Cornhusker State’s primaries to be moved because of the state’s robust vote-by-mail program. Ashford is competing in the primary to take on GOP Rep. Don Bacon in the 2nd District.

But Aspengren was frustrated by the limitations facing campaigns.

“I came up through the [Barack] Obama campaign, so my mantra is, ‘Go knock doors.’ Not being able to knock doors is really frustrating,” he said.

“This is doing a number on our democracy,” Aspengren later added. “And I cannot wait to get past this.” 

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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