Morris “Moe” Davis had hoped to spend this spring roaming western North Carolina, meeting with voters one-on-one, and creating a campaign organization capable of tipping over to the Democratic Party. seat of Congress recently vacated by US Republican Mark Meadows.
Instead, the Democratic candidate for the 11th Congressional District is stuck tweeting regularly and spending time conversing with mountain dwellers on Facebook, in addition to following the bears he often sees near his home in the Chunns Cove district of Asheville.
“Not a replacement for traditional campaigns,” Davis admitted in a phone interview, “but you have to work with what you have. “
With baby kisses, handshakes and knocking on the door out of the question, candidates for key Congressional races in County Commission are sidelined and struggling to connect – virtually – with voters. The campaign in the COVID era has been turned upside down.
A candidate walking through neighborhoods to solicit votes these days probably wouldn’t have doors slammed in his face just because “I don’t think the door would even open,” said Michael Bitzer, political science professor at the Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina.
“The classic notion of a campaign is to knock on doors, to mobilize the base. It’s not available, ”Bitzer continued. “Candidates and campaigns need to reinvent methods of electoral engagement and participation in new and different ways. “
Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina University, added that raising funds for the campaign “is going to be difficult. … One thing you do when fundraising is grant access to the candidate and at the moment there really is no good way to grant access.
Additionally, the suddenly weak economy and stock market declines mean potential donors will be less generous, said Larry Shaheen, a political consultant from Charlotte who works primarily with Republicans. “You’re going to see a lot of people struggling to fundraise right now. “
Tweeting and Facebooking for votes
The most urgent candidates to adjust to the new environment are the two Republicans stranded in a June 23 run-off for their party’s nomination against Davis in the 11th District, which includes the McDowell County West WNC .
Maggie Valley resident Lynda Bennett, a real estate broker, and Madison Cawthorn, a real estate investor and motivational speaker from Henderson County, emerged from a pool of 12 candidates in the March 3 primary in North Carolina, but none were able to muster the 30 percent of the vote necessary under state law to claim the GOP nomination and avoid a runoff.
Buncombe County Republican Party Chairman Jerry Green said he had recently seen little evidence of campaign activity by Bennett and Cawthorn, describing the race as “stalled”.
Under normal circumstances, Green said, the two Republicans would attend party rallies and make appearances in the district. But, he added, “if you were out and doing a lot now, you would be considered unresponsive.”
Bennett declined to comment for this story and Cawthorn could not be contacted, although the two continue to be active on social media with messages tailored to the COVID-19 environment. Bennett’s recent Facebook and Twitter posts include a video ad touting her professional background and saying that she “stands by President Trump in defeating this disease.” And in Congress, Lynda will work with Trump to hold China accountable. “
She also posted a video of herself holding a military-style rifle and telling viewers, “I am practicing my social distancing while exercising my Second Amendment rights, so all of you stay safe.” She then fires three shots.
Cawthorn regularly posted videos on Facebook titled “The New Town Square”. One says the United States can come back from the COVID-19 pandemic much like Cawthorn did after a car accident that requires him to use a wheelchair. “We live in the greatest country in the world, and if you have to face a terrible time… there is no better place than the United States of America. Take heart, everyone, ”he said. In another, Cawthorn said campaign volunteers “would be honored” to shop for viewers who are afraid to venture out due to health concerns.
Cawthorn was due to answer viewers’ questions at a Facebook event Thursday night and he and Bennett were due to address the 11th district Republican Party convention on Saturday, likely via Zoom. Aubrey Woodard, president of the 11th District GOP, said the two candidates could debate online at a future date, although Bennett said she was not inclined to participate.
Facebook, sing John Prine and the bears
Meanwhile, Davis, the Democratic nominee, has also shifted his campaigning efforts to social media. He has started Facebook Live events twice a week where he answers questions from people who log on. He also tweets or retweets criticisms of Trump and controversial Republican actions, such as the Wisconsin GOP’s decision to override the Democratic governor and force the polls. to open for that state’s primary on April 7 despite concerns over COVID-19 and the shortage of election workers.
This was accompanied by a video of Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and lawyer, singing John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” to commemorate the singer’s recent death, and a video of bears hanging out. in front of Davis’ house.
The races probably least affected by the slowdown in political activity are local races like those of the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission. There are usually not a lot of campaigns visible in these until summer or early fall.
Outgoing Republican Commissioner Joe Belcher has said he is “not campaigning at all right now” to retain his seat in District 3 representing the southern and western parts of the county.
But largely due to COVID-19, Belcher said the number of questions and requests for help he was receiving from voters had tripled and he was focusing on addressing those issues: “I’m at phone now more than ever. “
His opponent, Democratic candidate Parker Sloan, director of a solar energy company, said COVID-19 highlighted some issues he is talking about in his campaign, such as income inequality, healthcare and affordable housing. But he said it would be too early for traditional organized campaign activities now, even if there was no pandemic and his campaign was largely limited to conversations with residents by phone or on the phone. social networks.
Take a break
Despite the high political stakes, the statewide campaigns to challenge incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and incumbent Republican US Senator Thom Tillis appear to be in a state of near suspended animation. WCU professor Cooper said this reflects a national trend: “We take a little break from campaigning like we haven’t in recent (election) cycles. “
He said this break could work against challengers who have to overcome the advantages of an incumbent, especially easy access to the media. As a senior North Carolina executive, Cooper led the state’s response to the pandemic and had numerous opportunities to connect with voters through televised briefings and media coverage.
Polls show that Cooper, like many governors, has seen a significant improvement in his favorability scores since the onset of the crisis and demonstrates “strong governance capacity,” said Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College.
His GOP opponent Lt. Gov. Dan Forest suspended campaign activities at the end of March, including fundraising, according to his campaign manager, Hal Weatherman, although that interval appears to be ending. Weatherman said the Forest campaign recently gave money to people and businesses in need of help. And in recent days, Forest has asked Cooper to release more data on the pandemic as well as a more specific plan to lift home stay restrictions.
But Cooper’s higher media profile comes with certain risks. Bitzer said that, as issues arise with the state’s response – like the speed of mailing unemployment checks and voters’ reluctance to the pace of the reopening – Forest might find something to criticize Cooper more on. late in the countryside.
In the race for the U.S. Senate, incumbent Tillis held frequent town hall telephone meetings during which he answered questions from voters about COVID-19 and related federal actions. Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham, former state senator and military veteran, took to social media to host conversations and a recent fundraising coffee via Zoom with him from his home kitchen.
Bitzer says Tillis’ re-election prospects may have less to do with his own actions and more with how North Carolina voters view Trump’s response to COVID-19, which is already a hot topic of debate and will continue to do. probably to be throughout the campaign.
“Much of the Senate race can be tied to the top of the ticket,” Bitzer said. “The way Donald Trump does can guide the way Thom Tillis does. “
When, or even if, the 2020 campaigns will be able to resume traditional forms, it remains unknown. This leaves candidates stuck for a while trying to win voters through their digital devices. “It’s a great tool,” District 11 convention candidate Davis said of social media. “You can reach people and places that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. But it’s not the same as face to face.
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Mark Barrett is a seasoned freelance journalist who focuses on western North Carolina. Contact us at [email protected]