Erika Cashin, a Republican candidate for Congress in southeastern Minnesota’s Second Congressional District, already misses the campaign trail.
“I probably had 500 cups of coffee with people in the last four months to talk about my race,” Cashin said. “That’s what I’m missing the most right now.”
Cashin is one of a handful of candidates seeking the GOP endorsement to run against U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat in a swing district that could be one of the most competitive in the nation. The GOP endorsing convention is scheduled for May 2, but will most likely have to be conducted remotely, party officials say.
Craig also has had to make adjustments. She held a briefing with constituents last week to talk about the effect of coronavirus on schools in the district — by phone conference.
The disruption to public life brought about by the spread of COVID-19 has major implications for a critical election year in Minnesota. Candidates, operatives and activists in both the Minnesota DFL and GOP are racing to keep campaigns operating without access to the time-honored political art of pressing the flesh.
“It’s uncharted territory on every level,” said Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. Her counterpart at the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, Ken Martin, echoed that: “So much of what we take for granted about how an election works is up in the air right now.”
Political parties are being forced to hold the year’s crucial conventions by phone or online. The Trump campaign and others are holding virtual training sessions for volunteers around the state. Rallies have been canceled and office seekers at every level have suspended in-person appearances. A southern Minnesota candidate for Congress tweeted out a contact form for anyone who “needs someone to talk with (not just about politics but anything).”
Already, both parties have postponed regional and congressional district conventions, or are making plans to proceed via online or mail balloting. Still up in the air are state party conventions, which typically draw hundreds of activists from throughout the state; they are scheduled for May, but both Carnahan and Martin said those will probably have to be conducted remotely, too.
Another big question is the voting itself. Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on legislation that would ensure Americans are still able to vote in November by expanding early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states.
Raising money, the mother’s milk of politics, also is affected, with expectations rising that the pandemic will bring about a global economic slowdown or worse. In-person soirees are a staple of campaign fundraising. Political parties and campaigns, as nonprofit entities, rely almost entirely on donations to pay staff and spread their messages.
“We’re already seeing a slowdown to our fundraising in the last two weeks,” Martin said.
Conventions in question
But the most immediate problem is picking candidates. In addition to endorsing candidates in contested intraparty races, the regional conventions are where both parties elect presidential delegates and alternates to the national party conventions. Whether those conventions — Democrats in Milwaukee in July and Republicans in Charlotte, N.C., in August — actually happen is an open question.
The DFL already decided its congressional district conventions will use online or mail balloting. Cheryl Poling, the DFL chairwoman in the Third Congressional District in the Twin Cities’ suburbs, said she’s heard zero complaints. “People are relieved they don’t have to worry about coming to this, quite frankly,” she said.
There’s no DFL endorsement fight in the Third, so the only task is electing presidential delegates and alternates. “The folks campaigning for those spots, they can make calls, they can send e-mails,” Poling said. “They can do pretty much everything but that same-day, in-person lobbying that you’d do at a traditional convention.”
Endorsement fights are likely to be trickier to pull off remotely, often requiring multiple rounds of balloting and big shifts in support that typically bubble up from conversations and deal-making on the convention floor.
Minnesota Republicans have two endorsement fights brewing at the congressional level: in the Second District, where six candidates including Cashin are vying for party support; and in the Seventh Congressional District in western Minnesota, with five Republicans fighting to take on U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in November.
“I’ve advised my clients, turn on the phone, practice video,” said Gregg Peppin, a longtime political strategist who’s running several GOP campaigns this year, including Cashin’s. Matt Pagano, a Phoenix-based Republican strategist whose firm is working for Second District candidate Tyler Kistner, said to look for all kinds of remote technology to come to bear in campaigns.
“Tele-town halls are going to be a bigger thing. Mail communication is going to get much bigger. Digital outreach, texting voters directly is going to be big,” Pagano said.
Dan Feehan, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the First Congressional District, said he’s shifting his campaign’s focus away from overt politicking in favor of community service. He’s just one of many candidates in Minnesota to announce that approach in recent days.
“I have a platform to put out good public information,” Feehan said. On Monday, he tweeted out an online form for First District residents who “need someone to talk with.” He said anyone who signs up will get a call, e-mail or text from him or someone on his campaign staff.
“I was just gearing up this past weekend for 18 county conventions in the next couple weeks that now aren’t happening,” Feehan said. “So my energy is there, we’re just trying to find different forms to express it.”
Star Tribune staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.