With Campaigns in Remote Mode, Pandemic Upends Battle for Congress

WASHINGTON — As John Hickenlooper, a former Colorado governor and current Democratic candidate for Senate, began another campaign event via Facebook Live last week, he stated the obvious to his virtual audience.

“The nature of campaigns has changed,” Hickenlooper said as he beamed his message out to the political world from his family room in a joint appearance with Kathleen Sebelius, a former Obama administration health and human services secretary who was back home in Kansas, to talk about coping with the coronavirus. “These times really are different, and we are going to be doing things differently on this campaign.”

Hickenlooper, who is hoping to oust Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, is not the only one adjusting to a radically changed campaign reality. The sudden onslaught of coronavirus has upended the nation’s congressional races as many were just getting started, altering the political landscape in unpredictable ways and forcing candidates in the battle for the Senate and House to adapt to unique circumstances.

Campaign officials and strategists are trying to carefully game out the new reality. The crisis could prove to be a boost for incumbents who have a built-in advantage in providing services to constituents at a time when voters are on edge and in need. But it is also shining a potentially unflattering spotlight on Washington’s response to the pandemic, which could hurt lawmakers who were already facing an uphill climb to reelection.

While awaiting new polling and other information, it is difficult to gauge who stands to gain.

“There are multiple logical scenarios, but it’s too early to know,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections. “The response is just getting started and there won’t be enough race-specific data to make a sweeping conclusion for at least a few weeks.”

What is certain is that the Rotary Club lunches, community gatherings, door-knocking and fundraising receptions that are ordinarily the lifeblood of congressional races are gone for now. They are being replaced with tele-town halls focused on how to contend with the pandemic, virtual fundraising get-togethers and appeals to contribute not to campaigns, but to nonprofit community groups as incumbents and challengers try to stay relevant in a grim news cycle dominated by a single topic over which they have no control.

In one example, Sen. Thom Tillis, a first-term Republican facing a difficult reelection fight this fall in North Carolina, has been holding daily conference calls for constituents to dial in with questions about the pandemic. They are a chance for Tillis, who polls show to be deeply unpopular in his state, to present himself more as a social worker tending to voters’ needs than as a politician clinging to his seat in a close race.(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)In Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally, another embattled Republican, announced she would devote 15 days to raising money for the Salvation Army, not her political organization. Theresa Greenfield, a Democratic challenger in Iowa hoping to replace Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, has been urging Iowans to donate to food banks.

Applying his unique background to the situation, Mark Kelly, a Democrat and former astronaut trying to oust McSally, has been offering tips on how to cope with isolation during long days spent at home based on his time in space.