CHICAGO – Peter Ellertsen and his wife are used to getting political phone calls, usually with automated voices shilling for a candidate or asking for money. What is not normal is the call they received a few weeks ago: A real person from a congressional campaign who didn't want to talk about politics.
The young man on the phone from Illinois Democrat Betsy Londrigan's campaign said he was checking how Ellertsen, 77, and his wife were doing in light of COVID-19. He shared a hotline number in case the couple needed anything. And then they said good-bye.
“Not a political pitch or anything like that," said Ellertsen, a retired college journalism instructor from Springfield who plans to support Londrigan in a closely watched rematch with GOP Rep. Rodney Davis this fall. "It was a very nice ... It seemed to me like the right note at this time.”
The coronavirus pandemic put conventional campaigning on hold just as campaigns were ramping up, forcing candidates to scrap plans, rewrite budgets and find new ways to connect with voters and show they are the right person to lead in a crisis no one anticipated.
For some candidates, that means check-in calls to voters, food drives, distributing masks and other charitable acts have replaced the candidate coffees and campaign town halls. And, not coincidentally, the activities can provide picture perfect moments for use on social media, putting candidates in the public eye at a time when it's particularly tough to get attention on traditional media outlets.
“Traditional politics has faded,” said Democrat Carolyn Long, who held over 45 town halls during her 2018 race against Washington Rep. Jaime Herrara Beutler and hoped to hit a similar number as they face off again this year. The town halls have moved to Facebook, and Long has started volunteering to pack boxes at a local food bank.
Eva Pusateri, a Republican campaign consultant who does bipartisan political training, is encouraging candidates to do service work, and to make sure people know about it.
“Publicly they should just be acting like the leader they intend or want to be," she said. “Now is not the time to be blatantly political."
Republican Jeanne Ives, who’s trying to flip a longtime GOP-held suburban Chicago congressional seat that Democrats picked up in 2018, held a food drive last month, collecting so much food “our offices were stuffed with it.” The campaign posted photos of the haul on Facebook and other social media.
“I hope the takeaway is that we care about our neighbors and recognize a lot of people lost their jobs and are in need,” said Ives.
For Kathaleen Wall, a Republican running for an open congressional seat in Texas, handing out masks to first responders and businesses was a way of promoting her message that the country should safely get the economy moving again.
“I’ve made it clear to people in Texas that I’m going to look out for them,” she said.
Long said her campaign has been working to prove “you don’t have to be in Congress to show leadership.” But the political benefits don't end with portraying a particular image.
Posting about her campaign's volunteer activities on social media has helped attract a new group of volunteers — people who might not be inclined to join up for campaign phone banking or knocking on doors, Long said. The check-in calls also are helping her learn more about what’s on voters' minds. Sometimes voters share information that may be helpful for the campaign to know months from now, when Election Day is closer.
“We are obviously taking notes,” Long said.
Rep. Andy Kim, a first-term Democrat from New Jersey who is one of the party's most vulnerable incumbents, canceled a campaign launch he had planned at his old elementary school in March. He said his campaign's new approach isn't so different from his early days as a community organizer. He's still trying to build relationships with voters through check-in calls and events on Zoom, like a “jam session” during which Kim dusted off his cello for the first time in eight years.
Kim said in his district, which is home to many retirement communities along the Jersey Shore, a lot of constituents are stuck at home and crave a human connection.
“I’ve always really believed all politics is personal. So while this is a new tactic, it’s not a new value," he said. “This gets at the moment we’re in right now."