Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus | TheHill

Campaigns are shifting to virtual efforts to engage with voters after suspending events amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With staffers teleworking and candidates stuck either in Washington or in their homes, campaign teams are increasingly pivoting toward spreading information about the coronavirus and pitching in to help residents of their communities rather than spouting political messages.

Multiple interviews with officials on presidential and down-ballot campaigns underscored how candidates have been forced to turn to online media to reach voters as the pandemic simultaneously sidelines the contenders and pushes policy debates to the backburner.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Airbnb – House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines Sanders charges forward with 2020 bid despite long odds MORE, who relishes working a rope line and face-to-face interactions with voters, has sought to keep his presidential bid in the limelight with a spree of media appearances and virtual town halls mostly dedicated to the coronavirus after being forced to scrap his in-person events.

The Biden campaign confirmed to The Hill it will be ramping up its digital efforts to try to replace the face time the former vice president would normally get with voters. Events like virtual and phone-in town halls with Biden as well as medical professionals are expected to dominate his calendar, outreach that the campaign hopes will boost his standing heading toward a likely general election match-up with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis Maduro pushes back on DOJ charges, calls Trump ‘racist cowboy’ House leaders hope to vote Friday on coronavirus stimulus MORE.

“He’s one of the best retail politicians in the country, so that face time, the handshakes and the rope line time is super important to him and it’s where he really connects with folks, and I think you’ll see from us building out a digital program that still allows him to do that,” the campaign said.

“Having a formidable digital operation will be key and it’ll definitely put us in a position to compete, especially against the Trump campaign.”

For his part, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Airbnb – House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Oil price drop threatens US fracking boom Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines MORE (I-Vt.) has substituted his packed rallies with coronavirus town halls that feature medical experts, as well as live-stream events with musical guests. Sanders, who is facing down a growing delegate gap against Biden in the Democratic primary, has scrapped much of his political messaging while the senator is in Washington working on coronavirus relief efforts.

Sanders’s live streams to date have received more than 14 million views, according to the campaign, which did make an official available for comment to The Hill.

Down-ballot candidates in both parties who don’t boast the hefty war chests of Biden or Sanders are also making the pivot toward digital outreach, with many telling The Hill they’re seeking to help residents directly impacted by the pandemic.

“Of course we’ve had our own challenges of having to convert virtually, but it pales in comparison to what business owners [are experiencing],” said Zack Carroll, campaign manager for Jaime Harrison, a Democrat facing Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamUK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus Schumer: Senate should ‘explore’ remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break How much damage? The true cost of the Senate’s coronavirus relief bill MORE (R-S.C.). 

“I can’t even imagine what these folks are going through right now, and frankly that’s on top of Jaime’s mind. We’ll get through this, but we’ve really got to think about the folks that are going to be hit hardest,” he added. 

The Harrison campaign has launched a new phone line to reach rural voters across South Carolina without access to broadband internet.

“We’re running for the folks that don’t have the same luxuries that we do — that face a much more uncertain future given this,” Campbell said. “That’s what our focus is going to be.” 

The reelection campaign for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate eyes quick exit after vote on coronavirus stimulus package The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Airbnb – Trump, Dems close in on deal Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Trump signals easing coronavirus restrictions | Tensions boil over as Senate fails to advance stimulus bill | Pelosi previews .5T House stimulus package MORE (R-Maine), in one of the most closely watched Senate races, is conducting constituent conference calls to increase Collins’s exposure and offering to deliver items to residents who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“It hasn’t happened a lot yet, but people have had those conversations with folks and have offered, especially for some of our elderly neighbors who can’t get out, we’ve offered to go to the grocery store if we safely can do that and drop it off at their doorstep,” Kevin Kelley, Collins’s deputy campaign manager, told The Hill.

Both Amy McGrath and Theresa Greenfield, Democrats who are running against Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Senate unanimously passes T coronavirus stimulus package | Unemployment claims surge to 3.3 million | In three-day surge, stocks recover 20 percent of losses Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill MORE (R-Ky.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstPolitics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment GOP lukewarm on talk of airline bailout MORE (R-Iowa), respectively, are also sending links to supporters urging them to join in donating to local food banks.

“As our daily lives change, so do the challenges each and every one of us face, and for many people that’s being able to purchase or have access to food. We are trying to close that gap by having neighbors help neighbors through our work with food banks,” McGrath’s campaign told The Hill.

Like Biden and Sanders, many down ballot contenders are tailoring their message almost entirely around the coronavirus, cutting public safety announcement-style ads to detail health tips and appearing alongside doctors to urge voters to stay safe.

Yet while campaigns are as dedicated as ever to maintain their outreach, some admit they expect to pay a financial toll as face time with voters all but ceases and donors become increasingly tepid about making contributions.

“I think we’ve seen a huge economic crash and a global pandemic, of course there’s going to be a change of pace, for sure,” said Aaron Simpson, a spokesperson for Cal Cunningham, a Democrat running to unseat Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate leaving DC until April 20 after coronavirus stimulus vote Senate GOP super PAC books more than million in fall ads Politics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried MORE (R-N.C.). “What hasn’t changed is the approach of the campaign and Cal’s mantra that we’re going to meet people where they are regardless of the circumstances.”

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