PANDEMIC LIFE: The quiet and lonely race to Election Day in Colorado

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Gabby Giffords and John Hickenlooper held a joint town hall, March 9, 2020, at the Heritage Christian Center. Giffords took this opportunity to endorse John Hickenlooper for US Senate.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | First, there were awkward introductions accompanied by painfully evident dodged handshakes at campaign events across the state at the beginning of March.

Now, those encounters have been replaced by Zoom meetings, phone banking and virtual town halls, a complete 180-degree turn in campaign strategy upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in a matter of weeks.

Election 2020 is like no other.

Instead of rubbing elbows, supporters were asking each other “Should we just bump elbows?” at a March 9 campaign event where former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords endorsed former Gov. John Hickenlooper for U.S. Senate. Hand sanitizer was abundant at the Aurora event, as was anxiety when attendees were asked to lock arms with the person next to them to show unity in the fight for stricter gun policies.

It’s hard to imagine that happening now. The nation’s whole culture, politics included, has seemingly changed. Anything less than standing 6 feet apart seems blasphemous. 

At the Hickenlooper campaign event, it’d been just days since the first positive COVID-19 case had turned up in Colorado. He said that day he and Giffords promised each other to be cautious and use lots of hand sanitizer. Less than three weeks later, there have been more than 40 deaths across the state due to the virus, thousands of unemployment claims filed due to business restrictions and mandatory stay-at-home orders. 

Andrew Romanoff

The effort to contain the virus has made lots of aspects of life difficult, and traditional campaigning has been no exception. But candidates in races across the state are embracing the new normal, finding ways to still make meaningful connections with voters and use their platform to host health care experts who can speak to the current pandemic.

“To be isolated and in your home is the opposite of campaigning,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s meeting people and building connections. Now you have to do that but from a virtual way, telephones or texting.”

The former Colorado governor, Denver mayor and presidential hopeful is no stranger to campaigning, but this time around is not like the others.

“It’s certainly different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

He’s spending a lot of time on the phone. A lot of candidates are.

Steve House, who is vying to be the Republican challenger in the 6th Congressional District, said people are home right now and have time to talk. These days it’s typically about COVID-19, which is understandable, he said. It’s been helpful that he’s long had a working group to consult about health care issues. As a result, he’s learned a lot about the pandemic, the response and what the country may face in the coming months.

Parties have also had to adapt to the pandemic. Republican National Committee spokesman Kyle Kohli said the organization was able to pivot pretty much overnight because of existing technological infrastructure. 

CD 6 Republican candidate Steve House speaks during an Oct. 10 news conference and protest outside of Jason Crow’s district office in Aurora. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

The party’s day of action this month focused volunteers’ efforts on phone calls. In Colorado alone, volunteers were able to make 100,000 calls, a record, Kohli said.

For Colorado Democrats it’s much the same story. 

“People are still champing at the bit to be involved in the democratic process,” said Colorado Democratic Party spokesman David Pourshastari. “People are inside staying healthy and safe, but they’re wanting to know what they can do to defeat Donald Trump and Cory Gardner.”

“How are you?” and “What do you need help with?” are questions the candidates say they ask often now. Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat who is also running for U.S. Senate, said a woman came to him desperate to find a way to communicate with her husband who has dementia and is living at a long-term care facility where she can’t visit. 

Romanoff said he suggested that she write a card.

“People are eager to find an outlet and get accurate information, which is not the case at the White House,” he said.

Romanoff has taken to Facebook to host virtual town halls each week. In the last two weeks he’s hosted live Zoom calls with experts in health care and mental health to talk about the current health crisis.

Town halls held exclusively by Zoom certainly weren’t part of the original campaign plan, but Romanoff said they are resonating. More than 1,000 people tuned in last Friday, at noon, to listen to the candidate.

Jason Crow AP File Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

“I’d say that canceling our house parties and sending the staff home are obvious consequences, but to be honest, the changes we’re forced to make are nothing compared to the suffering other people are enduring,” Romanoff said.

Casper Stockham, who recently jumped from running in the 6th to running in the 7th congressional district race, said he plans to lean heavily on video — which has already been a major part of his social media presence —in the coming weeks, too.

He envisions a virtual Lincoln Day Dinner, of sorts. But instead of one big Republican gathering, the event may entail many small gatherings, probably of neighbors that are within the CDC social distancing guidelines, he said. Together those supporters would watch videos of predetermined speakers and presentations for a “Ronald Reagan Day event,” he said. That’s the date the former president returned to the White House after surviving an assassination attempt.

“The biggest thing politicians can do is go out and be seen,” Stockham said. “That’s all been canceled.”

While each of the candidates land on different parts of the political spectrum, the pandemic has more or less affected them in the same way. 

“I think that the paradox of this pandemic is that our survival depends on taking extraordinary measures including the need to keep distance from one another — that’s the medical advice you can follow,” Romanoff said. “But at the same time the strength of our society is coming together in every way but that…I’m hoping when we emerge from this crisis we will take that lesson to heart.”

Casper Stockham

It’s not just a game changer for politics, Hickenlooper said. He sees this sudden surge of video chats and technology to keep the world turning as a critical moment for everybody, from parents running soccer leagues to improving health care in rural areas. 

“They’ll all benefit by understanding the new tools we have, and actually having to use them,” he said.  

“In terms of campaigns, we’re going to discover new muscles and the ability to create relationships and connections maybe we hadn’t been using before. That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to talk about before, this notion that the U.S. Senate should have more experience in terms of how we use new technology and what are the ways you create laws in D.C. and successfully implement them to governors, mayors and regions. I think that’s something that will come out of this… the hope and recognition in skill and successfully implementing sweeping legislation.”

Beyond connecting with voters, the campaigns have had to go completely virtual, too. 

“We used to meet and in small groups, talk and have coffee or a drink or whatever. That’s just not what we do anymore,” said House’s campaign spokesman, Roger Hudson. “We have conference calls like everybody else. We’re learning to do more virtually.”

Hickenlooper’s volunteers communicate regularly through Zoom, he said. They’ve now made a bigger effort toward phone banking and texting voters ahead of the June primary. 

Michal Rosenor, executive director of Emerge Colorado, said her program, which trains women Democrats to run for elected office, will now run this year’s class of 25 women completely online. It’s now a model for other Emerge programs, too.

Rosenor also planned to run a two-day boot camp for staffers. It got moved online and was refocused to emphasize remote voter engagement.

The clear positive, she said, is that the program becomes more equitable for participants living outside of the Denver metro region. They now have more options to participate. 

For House, the former Colorado GOP chairman, the campaign today is a different dialogue than he’s ever seen in politics. The only thing he said has come close is maybe a bad snow storm that threatened to seriously limit participation in caucuses, but even that’s a stretch. 

“Everything changed overnight,” he said. 

Each of the candidates said they’re prepared to keep up the political social distancing until it’s safe to return to real-life town halls, coffee meet-ups and face-to-face introductions.

“I’ve shaken tens of thousands of hands, and kissed a few babies but I guess for me, the pain of this experience that you can see in so many families is motivating (me) even more to hold this office,” Romanoff said. “I said this at the beginning of the race: I just don’t want people to die or suffer on account of problems we can fix.