Labor Day marked the traditional kickoff of the fall campaigns, and the COVID-19 pandemic will change the ways those campaigns try to reach you this election season.
For one thing, you’re not likely to meet as many candidates in person as you have in the past.
You probably didn’t see much of them this summer, as parades, community celebrations, county fairs and other events where candidates typically schmooze with voters were canceled.
All 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature are on the ballot this fall, and legislative candidates have traditionally knocked on doors to meet as many voters as possible. But not this year.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidates have virtually sworn off door knocking for now. “We don’t want to put volunteers and staff at risk, and we really don’t want to risk the health of voters,” Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said.
Republicans, on the other hand, are meeting voters at their homes. “We’re following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, and we’ve had no pushback from voters who don’t want to see us,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.
DOORS VS. PHONES
GOP campaign aides advise their candidates to knock on a door, take a few steps back, have a face mask hanging from one ear and put it on if asked.
Door knocking gives Republicans a “huge advantage,” said Bill Walsh, the Senate Republicans’ public affairs director. “You can’t win an election without meeting voters.”
While the pandemic is making connecting with voters more difficult, “we’re still reaching out to constituents and making sure they know where we’re at,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
DFL leaders acknowledge their no-knock decision is a drawback, but they contend they’re making up ground by phoning more voters. “People are answering their phones this year more than they have in the past,” Kent said.
At least they were earlier this year. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Democratic lawmakers had “intense communications” with their constituents while the Legislature was in session last spring, fielding questions about COVID-19 and related government actions. Voters continued answering candidates’ phone calls in June and July, she said.
“But nobody was answering the phone in August,” Hortman continued. “Everybody was outside or at the cabin. People didn’t want to talk about the election. August is not only the dog days of summer but also the dog days of the campaign season.”
September and October, however, will be the “the heat of the election season,” she said. Campaigns “ratchet up” with more mailings, literature drops, radio and cable TV ads, digital displays, emails and text messages.
The challenge for legislative candidates this fall is that voters will be bombarded by so much advertising for and against President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the U.S. Senate candidates, she said, “that when we want to talk to them about a state House race, they’re like, ‘I’ve had enough. Politics is everywhere.’ ”
WILL PANDEMIC RESHAPE POWER?
The election will be defined by COVID, DFL and Republican leaders agreed. It will shape debates on health care, jobs and business, schools and colleges, housing evictions and mortgage foreclosures.
That may provide an advantage for Senate Republicans, who hold a 35-32 majority, said Walsh, the Senate GOP spokesman. “People want to vote for incumbents because they come prepared; there’s no need for on-the-job training.”
But Minnesotans have also shown an inclination to vote for change. They have flipped party control of the state House five times in the past 10 elections.
The Senate majorities used to be more stable, with DFLers controlling the chamber for 36 years before 2010. But voters have flipped party control there in the past three elections.
A Senate DFL operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations with the Pioneer Press, said they are confident they can pick up at least two Republican-held seats in the suburbs to reclaim the majority.
But Walsh said Republican senators, having passed several pandemic-related bills, have a strong record to run on. It shows “we care, and we responded,” he said.
House Republicans have a steeper hill to climb to win control: they need to pick up nine more seats.
“That’s absolutely doable,” House GOP leader Daudt said. In the past 10 elections, an average of 14 seats have flipped from one party to the other.
DFLers currently hold seats in 13 districts that Trump carried in 2016. “That’s our fertile ground,” Daudt said. In addition, there are a number of “historically Republican seats” that Democrats won by “razor-thin margins” two years ago that the GOP has a strong chance of taking back this year.
Of course, DFL Speaker Hortman sees the field differently. Like the rest of the nation, she said, most of rural Minnesota is solid red, and Minneapolis, St. Paul and other “population centers” are solid blue. The election is likely to be decided in competitive suburban districts.
A recent DFL survey showed that more than nine in 10 suburban voters are “highly motivated to vote” this year. Why? “Trump,” she said. The president is the “predominant issue” in the campaign, and most suburban voters want to defeat him.
“People give me credit for recruiting candidates in 2018,” when the DFL picked up 18 additional House seats to win control, Hortman said. “I didn’t recruit them. Donald Trump recruited them because he was so bad.” And he remains “very motivating for our voters” this year, she said.
A LOOK AT KEY ISSUES
While COVID-19 is the dominant issue in the election, leaders in both parties see racial unrest and racial injustice as a powerful and growing issue.
Republican leaders said suburban voters are frightened and angered by the rioting and looting that occurred in the Twin Cities after George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis in late May and the subsequent calls by protesters and Minneapolis DFL officials for defunding that city’s police department.
Daudt said on a recent weekend he talked to 50 voters while door knocking in a suburban district, “and without fail, every one of them said the most important issue is rioting and keeping people safe in our cities.”
Like President Trump, Minnesota Republican candidates are emphasizing that issue in their campaigns.
“We’re telling people that we won’t allow local units of government to defund police departments,” Daudt said. “And we’re telling them that we won’t allow rioting and looting.”
In response, Hortman accused Republicans of “seeking to stoke racial divisions … to distract attention from Donald Trump’s total failure on COVID-19.”
“Our polling shows about 75 percent of people think police could be doing a better job of interacting with communities of color, and 75 percent of Minnesotans really value local police. The same thing is true of the Minnesota House DFL.”
DFLers have traditionally fought for better pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights for police officers, she said, “but at the same time, we have a really strong record of addressing racial disparities and racial injustice.”
The speaker said DFL candidates will stress the “three bread-and-butter issues” they traditionally champion: “We care about world-class schools, affordable health care and good-paying jobs. We are trying to preserve and strengthen the middle class.”
Republican operatives said they’re advising candidates to “keep your race local.” Gazelka said voters are telling GOP candidates “they don’t want police defunded, they want to make sure kids are back in school, and they want to return to normal as much as possible.” Republican candidates will fight for those goals, he said.
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