2020 candidates and virtual campaigning: From Kennedy’s kitchen to Biden’s basement

“Use the top of your knife,” Boston chef Tiffani Faison gently coached over the video conference screen as the four-term congressman struggled to remove the bird’s backbone, one of the first steps in preparing Faison’s soy- and cola-infused poached chicken.

This is political campaigning in the age of coronavirus — an exercise that requires novel approaches from candidates who are sidelined by the pandemic from face-to-face retail politics and traditional fundraising. They’re confronting the challenge of breaking through the hourly doses of grim news from the outbreak’s front lines.

“While many folks have done parts of this before, nobody has ever had to run an entirely online campaign before,” said Amanda Litman, executive director for Run for Something, which helps progressive under-40 candidates. “We’re all figuring it out together.”

The approaches vary. For instance, Wendy Stolyarov, a Democrat running for city council in Sparks, Nevada, created mutual aid postcards emblazoned with her campaign logo that encourage supporters to volunteer to shop and run errands for their elderly neighbors. Earlier this month, New York state Senate candidate Jeremy Cooney held a virtual happy hour fundraiser with local bartenders to help drive donations to suddenly unemployed bar and restaurant workers in Rochester, New York.

And in Kansas, Republican US Senate candidate Kris Kobach used a tele-town hall on Monday night to remind voters of this week’s fast-approaching end-of-the-month deadline for political donations and to tout an upcoming installment of his “Constitution 101” classes via Facebook Live.

Next up in the series, according to the campaign’s Facebook page: “an educational dive into the Establishment Clause and the 2nd Amendment!”

The outbreak has forced campaigns to adapt to work from home and find potential supporters at theirs.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, has urged its candidates to conduct tele-town halls, virtual phone banks and host Facebook Live events.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has advised candidates not to fundraise directly off of the pandemic, consider pulling teams from the field to instead make phone calls, share coronavirus information only from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be aware of how communications are perceived during a crisis.

“At times like this you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste,” Rep. Tom Emmer, the NRCC chair, said in a memo to candidates and campaign managers in March.

Presidential campaigns

The most visible impact has been on the presidential race.

President Donald Trump has suspended his rallies of thousands of supporters. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, makes media appearances from a home studio in Wilmington, Delaware. (This week, Biden released the first episode of his campaign podcast, “Here’s the Deal.” The 21-minute episode featured a conversation with Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff who served as Ebola czar in the Obama administration.)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who remains in the Democratic presidential race, hosted a livestream Monday night on the pandemic.

Both national parties say they are prepared for weeks of virtual campaigning.

With door-knocking and other face-to-face contact now off limits, the Democratic National Committee is hosting “Digital Organizing 101” training sessions. More than 4,800 people have signed up, and the party already has trained more than 1,750 people in recent weeks, DNC officials say.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee say they have an advantage over Democrats because they invested in data and tech infrastructure throughout Trump’s presidency.

During a recent “national day of action,” Trump supporters made nearly 1.5 million calls from their homes to encourage people to back Trump’s re-election and to visit the government’s website on the pandemic, Coronavirus.gov, “to learn about what they can do to flatten the curve,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Ali Pardo said.

Breaking through

Kennedy, 39, is all over social media.

His so-called “evening broadcast” is streamed on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday nights. His campaign has added weekly Q&As via Facebook Live on Wednesday nights.

As in the live-streamed cooking lesson with Faison, who was a finalist on the Bravo reality show “Top Chef,” Kennedy’s family — wife Lauren and their children, four-year-old Eleanor and two-year-old James — feature prominently in videos. (A recent one included a pajama-clad Eleanor belting out “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” from the 2013 Disney animated movie, “Frozen.”)

“When I got into this race, I made a commitment to show up every single day for the people of Massachusetts,” Kennedy said in a statement to CNN this week. “In the face of Covid-19, that means deploying every tool in our digital arsenal to ensure we remain as accessible as possible during this time of physical distance.”

Kennedy is staging a primary challenge against Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, whose campaign’s recent digital offering included a bit more traditional approach: a sober Markey interview with Dr. Peter Slavin, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, about coronavirus and the shortage of medical supplies.
Run for Something has created a new website, ResourcesforCampaigns.com, to help the candidates it supports prepare for the new world of virtual campaigning and share ideas.

“We’re seeing fundraising dry up,” Litman said. “That’s true at every level, from the city council and school board, all the way up to presidential. That’s going to be even more so as the economy continues to collapse.”

Fundraising is so difficult that Cooney, the state Senate candidate in Rochester, isn’t even trying. “There’s so much need in our community with limited resources, that it doesn’t feel right to ask for political” donations, he said.

Instead, Cooney recently staged a “digital happy hour.” About 620 people joined in via Facebook Live as local bartenders made their favorite cocktails from home. In all, the event raised about $5,000 for an emergency fund for out-of-work food and beverage workers.

“This is a group of people who are a little bit forgotten, and we had a chance to raise their profile,” Cooney said.

In Nevada, the outbreak upended the campaign plans of Stolyarov, who is running for a city council seat in Sparks.

“I was expecting to knock on 10,000 doors this Spring,” she said. “We had to entirely re-engineer the campaign strategy because of this pandemic.” (She picked up the idea for her “Hello Neighbor” mutual aid mailers from another Westerner seeking office, Portland, Oregon, mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone.)

Rather than door-knocking, Stolyarov, who owns her own communications firm, these days is helping to deliver meals to senior citizens and working to round up additional volunteers to call voters. Even the phone-banking script has changed.

“We’re no longer calling and saying, ‘Hey, vote for Wendy!’ ” Stolyarov said. “We’re now calling and saying, ‘Are you OK? Is there anything you need help with?’ “

CNN’s Alex Rogers and Arlette Saenz contributed to this story.

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