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‘That’s a joke!’ One House candidate’s Zoom calls keep interns engaged in a pandemic

Texas Republican Wesley Hunt sees young supporters as key to victory

“How are we doing today?” Wesley Hunt asked his campaign interns Wednesday night. They silently waved and smiled. Some flashed their thumbs up in response.

A few months ago, they would have been together in the Texas Republican’s campaign office. But on Wednesday, Hunt and nearly 50 interns were dispersed at their homes, coming together over Zoom, a videoconferencing platform that’s become a staple of virtual connections during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You will never forget these times,” Hunt said at the start of the call. “When you have children and you will be like, ‘Y’all don’t understand how crazy this was when I was growing up. It was legit crazy.’ So just hang in there.”

This was the fourth Zoom call Hunt has held with his campaign interns since the pandemic hit in March. The video calls are just one example of how campaigns have tried to keep volunteers and interns, the forces behind the all-important voter outreach, engaged as campaigns have shifted to operating virtually.

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In Wednesday’s 30-minute session, Hunt, an Army veteran whom Republicans consider a top recruit, gave a brief update on his campaign against freshman Democrat Lizzie Fletcher in the Houston-area 7th District. Then he opened up the floor to questions. One by one, Hunt’s campaign manager un-muted interns who peppered the candidate on a range of issues, from advice about joining the military and talking to liberal classmates to his thoughts on the left’s Green New Deal proposal.

“I think the Green New Deal’s a great idea,” Hunt deadpanned.

“No one’s laughing? That’s a joke, come on,” Hunt said, seeming to forget that everyone was muted. “You can still laugh even though we’re on Zoom.”

Working the phones (for now)

Taylor Bess, a 19-year-old sophomore at Texas A&M University, told Hunt she wanted to run for office someday.

“Get off social media now. Don’t say anything stupid. … It lasts forever,” Hunt advised her. He cautioned that campaigns are challenging, adding, “Understand that this is service, so enter it with a servant’s heart.”

Bess said in an interview that she was drawn to Hunt’s campaign because he is a young candidate with a military background. Hunt, 38, is also one of the few Black Republicans running for Congress.

“Whenever people talk about Republicans or think about Republicans, especially in office, they envision old white guys,” Bess said. “And I feel like that’s not what our party is.”

Bess started her internship in late May, after Texas had started to reopen. She goes to Hunt’s campaign office three days a week and helps with phone banking, which campaigns have relied on to reach voters with in-person canvassing paused.

The interns in the office wear masks and socially distance. While the hum of a bustling campaign office in a competitive congressional race may be muted in the pandemic, Bess said she’s still excited about the campaign.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else this summer,” she said.

Eventually the Hunt campaign, which has 127 interns, is hoping to put its team back on the street, connecting with voters in person. Young voters tend to support Democrats, and Hunt suggested it would be quite a sight to see young people campaigning for a Republican.

“By November, we’re literally going to be walking neighborhoods and canvassing neighborhoods, and everybody’s going to be under the age of 25 — for a Republican candidate,” Hunt said.“”And everybody’s going to lose their minds.”

Of course, no one knows what the pandemic will look like come November. So for now, campaign interns will have to keep working the phones.

“It’s up to you to continue to make these calls, continue to reach out to people,” Hunt told the interns.

“This is why we’re going to win,” he later added.

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