When Democrat Hillary Scholten first ran for Congress in 2020, her campaign, like much of the rest of the world, went almost totally virtual.
Scholten, an immigration lawyer who lost to now-Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan’s 3rd District, pivoted to video conferences, text messages and phone calls, with occasional masked and distanced interactions with would-be voters. This year, she’s again running for the seat, but she says she’s embracing big, in-person events, including campaign kickoffs over the weekend in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Grand Haven.
Her campaign figured out ways to “effectively communicate” with voters last time around, she said. “But I know not in the same way that we could have if we were able to — with masks off, and full eye contact, facial expressions, you know — hear what’s on people’s minds,” she said in a recent interview. “And we’re really looking forward to that opportunity this time around.”
The novel coronavirus had upended nearly every routine, including campaigning, by this time two years ago — before vaccines and as lockdowns, indoor capacity limits and mask mandates became commonplace. Now, with mask and other requirements lifting across the country and people reengaging more in social and civic life, candidates, political organizers and D.C. lobbyist donors say in-person events are coming back, making the 2022 midterm campaigns more of a return to normal.
Or, at least, normal-ish.
Scholten says her campaign requests that attendees at events be vaccinated and will offer remote options for gatherings. Some voters with health concerns have asked for masked and distanced events, and Scholten says her team is adding such functions to the calendar. But most people are ready for actual face time.
“I would say, for the most part, people really are comfortable in a mask-off, in-person setting,” she said.
That’s a sharp contrast from 2020.
“We had some selective outdoor events [in 2020] where we were masked and we were distant, but the reality is, there's a lot of people who did not feel comfortable even with that,” Scholten said. "And it is just a different type of campaigning experience. You know, obviously, we have no regrets about the way that we handled things. First and foremost, the health and safety of our community came first."
Revising the playbook
Different regions around the country often took different approaches to COVID-19 restrictions, and Democrats overall were more likely than Republicans to promote masks and social distancing — or just staying home. But candidates in both parties across the nation relied more on advertising and digital outreach while holding fewer in-person gatherings.
California GOP Rep. Young Kim, who flipped a blue district in 2020, said that even at the beginning of her run in 2019, when no one had even heard of COVID-19, she was already using conference calls and other technology tools. In her reelection campaign this year, she said, she is taking an “all of the above” approach incorporating in-person and virtual strategies.
In 2020, “we had all of those lockdowns, so we had to adjust everything by doing virtual,” she recalled recently. “A year after I had already started campaigning, we had to adapt to 100 percent virtual.”
She said that with a team of hundreds of “enthusiastic volunteers,” her campaign in 2020 made more than 3 million phone calls, sent nearly 2 million text messages and even knocked on doors as Election Day drew near. “We would ring the bell, then step back,” she said, noting that the canvassers would keep 6 to 10 feet of distance. That effort helped.
“They were just so happy we would actually show up,” she recalled.
With her district changing after the 2020 census, Kim has new voters to meet and will be out in the community for face-to-face interactions.
Same for Republican Tyler Kistner, who made his first bid for Congress in 2020 and is again aiming for the seat of Democratic Rep. Angie Craig in Minnesota’s 2nd District. Kistner, a Marine veteran, said that in 2020 his campaign had to revise any playbook it had from the past.
“We had to get creative; we had to adjust,” he said recently. “People didn’t want to have large gatherings, and so it was hard to actually establish a ground game. Especially for a first-time candidate, a big piece is getting out there, seeing people face to face and getting your name out there. It was a challenge.”
Now, he’s meeting voters in real life. His campaign held an event recently with 150 supporters, he said, and intends to do more meet-and-greets and rallies.
“I always said in the Marines, you never create a relationship with email, text message or phone calls,” he said. “You create relationships with face to face. You cannot get around that. We are social beings. We want to have social interactions.”
The inside-the-Beltway fundraising scene, which has slowly been coming back since last spring, has begun to boom again with in-person festivities, according to lobbyists and party committees’ schedules of events.
Virtual events still abound, but numerous House Democrats have fundraisers on the calendar in the coming days with the end of the first quarter looming. On Friday, both New York Rep. Grace Meng and Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego plan to raise campaign money at a Bad Bunny concert at the Capital One Arena, according to a list of events put out by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon is planning a luncheon fundraiser March 28 at the Southeast D.C. eatery Osteria Morini. Michigan Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens is planning a reception in Southeast D.C. that same evening.
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley has luncheon and dinner fundraisers this week, according to a roundup compiled by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, while Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is planning to raise money at a March 30 Washington Wizards game against the Orlando Magic.
GOP lobbyist Sam Geduldig, a partner at the CGCN Group, said that since D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted the mask mandate and with spring temperatures arriving in the nation’s capital, more in-person fundraising events have been popping up on the calendar around Washington.
“People are just itching to get out of the house,” Geduldig said. “I’ve been to a bunch of events in the last couple of weeks that have been really well attended. I just feel like things are changing.”
Outside groups that organize volunteers, train candidates or knock on voters’ doors are also planning a return to more full-scale activities for the midterms.
In Texas, where primaries are held in early spring, the elections in March 2020 were among the last with in-person campaigns before everything shut down. This year, they were among the first indications of how campaigning has changed for the 2022 cycle.
Coronavirus restrictions have been less a part of day-to-day life in Texas than in other states, and some groups returned to limited in-person activities months ago.
The Texas Organizing Project, a progressive group that relies heavily on door-to-door canvassing, sent organizers back out on the streets in the last months of the 2020 elections, co-Executive Director Brianna Brown said. But volunteers had to follow strict protocols, wearing masks and stepping back to allow for 6 feet of space when people opened the door.
This year, the group was able to launch full-scale canvassing operations as soon as it announced its endorsements in the 2020 primaries, Brown said, adding that COVID-19 has felt like less of a restraint than the state’s new voting laws, which has created confusion about voter registration and how outside groups can interact with voters.
The progressive group Our Revolution endorsed candidates in three Texas primaries. In those races, the group was able to incorporate skills learned from the past two years of virtual campaigning to enhance its return to in-person operations, Political Director Aaron Chappell said.
It held a virtual phone bank with volunteers from across the country supporting progressive Jessica Cisneros, who pushed incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar into a May primary runoff in the 28th District. “That on-line, remote stuff allowed activists from around the country to be engaged,” he said. “That’s important.”
But, he added, that kind of work can’t replace physical contact with voters and volunteers. The group also held a rally in San Antonio and has started to have chapter meetings again. Volunteers have been excited to be “back in the streets,” he said.
Kelly Dietrich, founder and CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee, agreed that making a personal connection is key to motivating supporters.
“Everyone’s ready to go out and knock on doors, with this great big asterisk because we’re all a little weirded out,” said Dietrich, whose group trains candidates and volunteers across local, state and federal campaigns.
For larger, in-person events, he said, organizers are navigating different people’s risk assessments. For a “cocktail event with 50 other people, how do you make people feel comfortable? How do you bring people in?” he said. “If you want to wear a mask, great. It’s about creating that sense of you’re part of something, and we welcome you for who you are.”
The virtual tools, he expects, will remain a major part of campaigning and organizing but, absent a dangerous new coronavirus variant, politicians and their supporters will be out there on the trail this year.
“People in politics are, for the most part, in electoral politics, extroverted people,” Dietrich said. “We want to be out there. We want to connect with our fellow citizens, and people have missed that.”
Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.