The world looks different today than it did when Orange County politicians launched their 2020 campaigns, back when the economy was strong and a rally might lure tens of thousands of voters to gather in one place.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced Orange County’s four freshmen House members, all Democrats hoping to defending seats they flipped in 2018, to take their much-touted public town halls online. And it’s forced every politician to shift his or her talking points largely away from things like tax policy and gun control and toward things like viral testing and social distancing.
The pandemic even has changed the practical, day-to-day grist of political campaigning.
Last month, for example, congressional candidate Greg Raths canceled his victory party in the 45th District. That party, he hoped, would celebrate getting past five other GOP candidates in the March primary, and rev up his supporters for a tough November match-up against incumbent Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine.
And for now, Josh Newman, a Democrat trying to win back the 29th Senate District seat from GOP Sen. Ling Ling Chang, has to park his ice cream truck and, with it, his strategy of regularly connecting with voters over frozen treats.
In fact, most traditional campaign activities — things like fundraiser dinners and speeches at political clubs — are on pandemic hiatus. And while volunteers for some candidates are working virtual phone banks and the like, experts say digital outreach can’t match the essential political energy that comes with face-to-face campaigning. It’s unclear when, or if, retail politics will resume before the Nov. 3 election.
But there’s a saying in politics about never letting a crisis go to waste. And the crisis of a generation, the coronavirus pandemic, is offering incumbents and challengers alike a chance to campaign on things like big ideas and service projects that are desperately needed in the districts they aim to serve.
How candidates navigate the pandemic could well decide how they do in November, according to Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at University of La Verne. Elections during crisis tend to be about emotion, she said, and voters tend to pick candidates who help them weather the storm.
“It’s going to be much more about judgement, leadership and caring,” Godwin said.
Pivot to public service
Supporters, and optimists, might look at GOP challenger Young Kim volunteering at a food bank in the 39th Congressional District, or at Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva hosting a blood drive the 65th District, and see examples of the pandemic bringing out the best in all of us. Opponents, and cynics, might see opportunism. But even if the truth is some mix of both, the pandemic is pushing politicians to focus on what their profession is supposedly all about — public service.
“I think there’s a genuine caring on the part of most, if not all, of these candidates,” Godwin said. “But they also are recognizing that people will forget them if they don’t have a role to play right now.”
Brian Maryott — a Republican congressional candidate challenging Rep. Mike Levin for the 49th District seat that covers south Orange County and north San Diego County — said people will always question a politician’s motives, particularly in a campaign year. But Maryott, who sits on the San Juan Capistrano City Council, said this to the naysayers: “Get off your computer. Put a mask on. And come help out.”
Maryott said after the March 3 primary he had a team of some 250 volunteers ready to dive into the campaign. But the pandemic has made it impossible for them to do what they all enjoy most about politics: meeting constituents.
“It’s like being in simmer mode,” Maryott said. “You kind of have to simmer on the stove when the recipe doesn’t call for it.”
Now, a few dozen people on Maryott’s campaign team are still doing phone and online work, helping him run virtual town halls and do outreach from home. But he said others wanted to channel their energy into giving back. So he partnered with Solutions for Change, a Vista-based nonprofit that helps people transition out of homelessness. Maryott’s team is collecting goods and putting together 50 care packages.
Melissa Fox, a Democrat on the Irvine City Council who is challenging Republican Assemblyman Steven Choi for the 68th District seat, has shifted her campaign’s virtual phone banking team to a “Supporting Seniors” initiative. Volunteers call to check in on senior citizens and others in the district who might need critical services.
In the 45th Congressional District, Raths of Mission Viejo has been sharing photos of volunteering with the local Rotary club to assemble face masks for donation to area hospitals. He said he’s also working with a surf apparel shop to make protective gowns and masks for medical professionals.
Such examples keep pouring in from both sides of the aisle, which Maryott described as a sliver of good news. In this crisis, he added, “we are all human beings.”
Though good deeds are open to everyone, the restrictions of pandemic campaigning probably help incumbents.
In normal years, incumbents typically hold a 3% to 5% voting advantage over challengers, a result of name recognition, campaign experience and fundraising avenues. But this year, with face-to-face fundraising not viable, well-financed incumbents like Porter and Levin have an advantage over their challengers. And political observer Godwin notes that incumbents who can self-fund — such as Rep. Gil Cisneros in the 39th District, who won a $266 million lottery jackpot a decade ago — hold an even stronger financial edge.
Sitting leaders also tend to get a bump in popularity during times of crisis, a phenomenon known as the “rally ’round the flag effect.” And several Orange County incumbents seem well positioned to benefit from such a bump. The pandemic is elevating their profiles as they pitch plans that could have benefits for their constituents — and their campaigns.
Both of Orange County’s state senators on the ballot this fall are Republicans meaning, in normal times, they have a tough time making big changes in Democrat-controlled Sacramento. But Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, who represents the 37th District, recently helped push through an effort to let more nurses graduate during the pandemic. And Chang, R-Diamond Bar, is pushing an urgency bill that would help parents who miss work to care for kids recoup a portion of their lost wages.
Members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors also have been in the spotlight more than ever. They’ve overseen high-profile decisions about whether to close businesses or require people to wear face masks. That spotlight could mean even more name recognition for incumbent Andrew Do, who faces a runoff this fall with Westminster Councilman Sergio Contreras. It also could boost the profile of Michelle Steel, a Republican supervisor who’s challenging Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in the coastal 48th Congressional District.
Among House members, Porter, D-Irvine, continues to gain national attention for her showing at congressional hearings, including a viral video in March where she pressed the director of the Centers for Disease Control to commit his agency to pay for coronavirus testing for uninsured Americans. And Cisneros, D-Yorba Linda, is pushing to let people use Medicaid to pay for medical treatment connected to the coronavirus.
Look like a leader
The pandemic also presents an opportunity for challengers, letting them shift their campaigns away from politics as usual. To that end, many are adding “COVID-19” tabs — with information and resources — to their campaign homepages, matching what incumbents have done on their official websites.
In CA-39, Kim’s site offers extensive coronavirus resources. And she regularly posts video on social media offering tips on social distancing or sheltering at home, and urging support for local food banks.
Likewise, challengers Steel, Newman, Fox and Maryott all have prominent coronavirus resources in their websites, as do Dave Min in SD-37, Andrew Rodriguez in AD-55 and Scott Rhinehart in the now-open race for AD-73.
Political observer Godwin says such efforts are essential, as the challengers who don’t step up with clear pandemic ideas and leadership could pay for it in November.
“It is helpful for voters to see that person as if they were their representative, so they can visualize them in office, and they have a comfort level with approaching them for help if the time comes.”