When Carolyn Long launched a bid for Congress in 2018, her message revolved largely around showing up.
The Democrat held dozens of town halls across Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, aiming to draw a contrast with the incumbent, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who holds most of her public forums via telephone.
Long, a Washington State University Vancouver professor, ended up losing to Herrera Beutler with 47.3 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 52.7 percent. But it was a closer race than many had anticipated — Herrera Beutler had won by 20-point margins in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Long said she thinks that the public forums played some part in narrowing the electoral gap in 2018.
“I was showing up. I held 46 town halls, and it was quite clear to everyone watching that I was working really hard for every vote,” Long said, speaking with The Columbian in an interview via teleconference.
Long is running again in 2020. But just as her election campaign started to pick up steam, the outbreak of COVID-19 effectively halted all in-person campaigning. Town halls are canceled. So are the rallies, and the marches, and the grab-a-beverage-with-the-candidate casual meet-ups that would usually serve as a staple of any given election season.
So what happens when a candidate who’s built her brand around showing up isn’t allowed to leave her house anymore?
The challenges faced by Long’s campaign aren’t unique. Across the nation, politicians and candidates at the local, state and federal level are scrambling to move entirely online.
Herrera Beutler had to cancel her campaign kickoff rally that had been scheduled for March 16 due to social distancing protocol. Parker Truax, a spokesperson for her campaign, said the congresswoman has had very little time to devote to campaigning since the outbreak started, anyway.
“There’s just been too much to do helping Southwest Washington respond to and endure the COVID-19 crisis,” Truax said. “So a lot of campaign tasks have been pushed to the back burner for now, and that’s fine.”
Herrera Beutler is continuing her phone-in town halls, a staple of her decade-long tenure in Congress. She hosted her most recent remote forum on April 1, featuring Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick and a couple of economic stakeholders from the region.
“Telephone town halls have been a useful venue for her to communicate with a lot of people at once, and they’ll continue to be useful, but they’ve only ever been one of many tools Jaime uses to connect with folks,” Truax said.
Herrera Beutler rarely holds in-person forums for her constituents, preferring instead to host expert roundtables and resource fairs. Her last solo in-person town hall was in February 2017 — an oft-criticized element of her campaign style, and a point that Long capitalized on in the last election.
Both candidates are also seeing the coronavirus outbreak hit their campaign’s coffers. Neither Long nor Herrera Beutler are actively fundraising, both campaigns have said.
Herrera Beutler’s campaign has had to “adapt to the reality that many people suddenly don’t have the ability to make campaign contributions right now,” Truax said, adding that the congresswoman’s campaign should still have enough resources to make it to November.
People just don’t have the financial or emotional bandwidth right now to think about donating to a candidate, Long said. Most of the would-be constituents she’s talking to right now are concerned with concrete, practical problems: How can I get tested for the virus? Will my insurance cover it? How can I apply for unemployment benefits?
When answering those questions, Long said she also tries to connect the dots linking those individual inquiries into her platform’s broader picture — for example, how would expanding access to coverage under the Affordable Care Act impact the cost of coronavirus testing? How would stronger broadband infrastructure influence people’s ability to work from home?
“You’ll see a lot of politicians come late into the game,” Long said. “I want to remind people, these are issues we’ve been consistently talking about for three years on the campaign trail.”
Long’s staff of five vacated their office on March 16. They also halted the rollout of the town hall and “Coffee with Carolyn” events that had been originally scheduled for mid-March.
One staffer, a volunteer coordinator, is currently working to touch base with the 2,000 or so volunteers who worked for the Long campaign in 2018. But right now, there’s not all that much that volunteers can do. Boots on the ground are a no-go during the novel coronavirus.
“We don’t really have them doing a whole lot, because usually that’s a field effort,” Long said.
Truax said that Herrera Beutler has been spending her days “at home with her immediate family on a never-ending string of conference calls,” adding that congressional briefings are taking place via telephone right now.
“Instead of parades and political events, Jaime’s Saturday afternoons and evenings are spent on the phone taking inventory from local hospitals who need masks and gowns,” Truax said.
The congresswoman also has three young children who frequent her social media channels, popping up on posts about balancing work and family during quarantine.
Long’s campaign has held a few remote “Coffee with Carolyn” events via Zoom, as well as a roundtable for childhood education experts to weigh in following school cancellations.
It’s not a perfect solution, Long allows. At a recent virtual “Coffee” event, the candidate’s internet connection kept dropping, forcing her to change devices and locations around her house during the call. It cut into the candidate’s most crucial resource: time available to connect with voters and answer questions.
There’s also an equity issue at play. Not everyone has reliable internet access, and reaching people exclusively online could exclude swaths of voters in Washington’s 3rd. Long said she’d hold some audio-only call events if needed, but it’s not ideal.
Long also said she’d try to conduct some larger virtual town hall events once her campaign team can iron out the technological challenges.
But she’s itching to resume her old campaigning style once the COVID-19 threat is over.
“When we’re able to see each other face to face, I’ll be back to my old ways,” Long said.