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  • Feldman Strategies

Down-ballot candidates walk a fine line raising cash in middle of a pandemic

By Sarah Ewall-Wice, Eleanor Watson, Lacrai Mitchell and Aaron Navarro 4/10/20

Stay-at-home orders issued across the U.S. have made it a challenging time to run a political campaign. And it's even more difficult to ask voters —and supporters — for cash to help fuel these operations. In three weeks, more than 16 million U.S. workers filed for unemployment benefits as efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus shut down businesses across the country. With so many people suffering economic devastation because of the novel coronavirus and uncertain of what the future holds, candidates are faced with a conundrum. 

"How do you ask someone to give money to a campaign right now," wondered Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Colleen Condon. "I don't know how you do it. I don't know how anybody does it."

It's a question that candidates and supporting organizations are grappling with across the nation. Many struggle with asking for cash even in the best of times, but for better or for worse, money is still what fuels a campaign, so now, it's about striking a delicate balance. 

"On fundraising, it's definitely a huge challenge, especially for down-ballot candidates who don't have as big of a network to work with," said Ianthe Metzger, deputy director of campaign communications for Emily's List, which supports progressive women candidates.

"If we do get back to normal in a few months, candidates are going to need the resources to get them over the finish line, so we're not telling them to stop fundraising, just to kind of really talk to people,"  she adds.

"People are incredibly stressed. They're stressed about their job, they're stressed about are they going to bring the virus home to their kids," said Dr. Kayser Enneking, a Democrat running for a Florida state House seat. "This is not the time for me to call and say, 'hey, by the way you know, I know you want better government and that costs a lot of money to do.' And so, that's been really challenging because we know how political campaigns run — they run on money."

One Republican House strategist told CBS News he expects small-dollar fundraising is going to be hardest hit by this pandemic. 

"If you're a restaurant or retail worker that's been furloughed, it's really hard to keep chipping in your $10 or $15 contribution online when you're worried about when your next paycheck is going to come," he said. 

"We're telling candidates, they're going to have to exercise some judgment on a lot of this right now," said Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something which focuses on recruiting progressive young candidates for down-ballot races.  

His organization and others are encouraging candidates to continue making calls to supporters, including those who donate money. Ted Terry, the first vice chair for the Georgia Democratic Party, is running for a county commission seat. He said during this pandemic, he's continued to make calls because people are continuing to donate when they can.

"A lot of times you're calling people that you already know are...big Democrats," said Terry. "They already care about these issues — it's just a matter of do they have money now or are they waiting till the end of the month because they just gave their discretionary fund to support the local food bank and…next month, they'll be able to support your campaign."

In some cases, the calls have shifted from candidates explaining their own efforts to checking in with their constituents and their well-being. If people are struggling, it's best to nix the hard ask. Run for Something has also suggested candidates go through their lists and ensure they're not calling health care workers or other essential personnel on the frontlines of the pandemic and those who may have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. 

At the same time, down-ballot campaigns that are no longer holding in-person fundraising events have turned money-raising gatherings into virtual ones. Zoom happy hours have been popping up for candidates up and down the ballot. One held a movie night online and another brought donors together with online Bingo. Ted Terry said his team is beginning to experiment with Zoom fundraisers too, and in a couple weeks he plans to integrate yoga into his online fundraising. A yoga instructor has offered to conduct an online class and donate all the proceeds to his campaign. 

"We're not trying to just be like 'hey let's all get on a Zoom call and just talk to each other for 30 minutes," said Terry. "We're trying to think outside the box."

Even without the overt asks, donations are going up in some cases. Health care professionals-turned-candidates have, for example, seen a bump in funding as more people determine they want to support people with this kind of expertise representing them in government.  Other candidates with health care backgrounds have become a vital resource for constituents. 

"They are texting me and they're saying, 'you know, I have a fever. Do you think I need a COVID test?' [Or] '...should I be wearing a face mask? You know, is it okay for me to go to the grocery store?' I mean just some basic questions that they need somebody to turn to and because they know that I have a public [profile], they know how to find me and they know I'll answer it and answer it as truthfully as I can," said Enneking, a University of Florida anesthesiologist.

While Enneking said fundraising is a crucial part of campaigning, she doesn't believe it's appropriate for her right now.  

"I don't want people to think that I am using this virus as a political tool to highlight the fact that I'm a doctor," said Enneking. "What this is about is saying 'yes, I am a doctor and I understand the science, and I understand that policy affects health outcomes, and that's why we need people that understand medicine here.'"

Others not in the health care field but with strong views on the current system here have addressed the coronavirus in their own fundraising pitches. 

In an email to supporters, M.J. Hegar, who's running to unseat Texas Senator John Cornyn solicited donations under the subject line, "Help me defend our health care." Others have sent out similar pleas by  text message.

"We have to do [fundraising] with empathy and putting our values first," said Andrew Feldman from the National Democratic Training Committee, which serves as a resource for Democrats running at every level. "Connecting with potential donors with the values your campaign believes in, which are issues largely that we're seeing that if implemented would have helped this crisis… issues like affordable universal health care, sick leave. I mean, these are things that Democrats have been leading on for a long time."

In terms of hard numbers, it's unclear what the pandemic's overall impact on campaign cash funds the pandemic will be. According to one Democratic strategist, Democratic House candidates started off 2020 with very strong numbers, but there was a dip towards the tail end of the quarter. There will likely be a clearer picture at the end of the second quarter. Same goes for Senate candidates.

"I think the impacts of not being able to do events and doing virtual fundraising won't really hit until next quarter," said an aide on a Democratic Senate campaign. "People have concerns about their own livelihood, so they're less inclined to donate. I'm sure we'll see that in the next quarter."

"Democratic Senate races will continue to raise the resources they need, but right now they are all focused on supporting their communities, providing reliable information, and putting forward real solutions to help address this crisis," said DSCC spokesperson Stewart Boss. 

In a memo sent in early March, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Emmer told members to "be sensitive that your donors may have suffered financial losses during this pandemic. While large gatherings fundraiser may be impractical or illegal depending on your location, you can still sit down and make fundraising calls and touch base with donors asking how they are."

"Being able to come off of Super Tuesday with a big win, really did put some wind in our sails to get through March. Obviously we wanted more wind, but you never know what happens when the whole world stops," Texas House Republican candidate Genevieve Collins told CBS News. She also pointed to delays in the passage of the stimulus package as a potential issue boosting small dollar donations. "In a time where we really have to meet people at their most basic needs, to stall something...really hurts the majority of Americans and is very distasteful in Dallas. And people are mad about it and are quite frankly, capable of giving $25. You know they're not giving $2,800 but they're giving what they're feeling, what they're comfortable to give."

WinRed, the platform used by Republican candidates to raise funds, had anticipated seeing a decrease in funding as coronavirus precautions went into effect but did not see a significant dip in the first quarter. The platform hauled in nearly $130 million for Republicans over the first three months of the year.

Meanwhile, the organization ActBlue which Democrats use for fundraising has not released fundraising totals since the outbreak began, but it has promoted resources to help candidates and progressive organizations navigate asking for cash under the current circumstances. 

When civilian life will be returning to some semblance of normal remains unknown. With that in mind, multiple candidates confirmed to CBS News, they're already considering options should they be forced to carry on a virtual campaigns heading into the general election.  


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