Pandemic throws campaign challenges in way of candidates looking to win June 2 primaries

When he decided to run for state auditor general, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb thought he had retail politics down to an art form.

After all, the 57-year-old was born into a political family. The affable Democrat had run seven successful campaigns in Allegheny County, made his bona fides as the city’s fiscal watchdog and laid the groundwork for his first statewide bid.

That was before the coronavirus shutdown ushered in a new paradigm in political campaigns.

“My campaigns have always been grassroots, door-to-door, and to not have that is tough,” Lamb said. “I have teleconferences and a strong Facebook presence, and I’m working email, texting and social media in general.”

He is glad he spent time campaigning in eastern Pennsylvania in January and February and pulled in a raft of endorsements from organized labor.

Nonetheless, he is in lockdown and faces five opponents in the only statewide contest in the Pennsylvania primary on June 2. Other candidates include state Rep. H. Scott Conklin of Centre County; former congressional candidate Christina Hartman from Lancaster; Nina Ahmad, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor; Tracie Fountain, a veteran employee of the auditor general; and Rose Marie Davis, a certified public accountant from Monroe County.

Lamb is not alone.

Although traditional advantages such as name recognition and deep pockets that can finance direct mail and television ads still hold weight, many candidates are struggling to get their message out in a world where handshaking, door-knocking campaigns and rallies no longer exist.

A recent federal lawsuit, challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic shutdown, went so far as to claim the governor violated what a group of GOP lawmakers called their “constitutionally protected rights” to hold campaign rallies and engage in door-to-door campaigning.

New landscape

Serious candidates from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has been limited to broadcasting his message from the basement office in his Delaware home — to political novices struggling to gain name recognition all are navigating a new landscape.

Jeff Coleman, a conservative-leaning political strategist and founder of Churchill Strategies in Harrisburg, marvels at how the shutdown has accelerated changes that were already beginning to make inroads in campaigns.

“For retail politicians, this is like flying without instruments,” said Coleman, a former Apollo councilman and state lawmaker who represented Armstrong and Indiana counties.

Zoom and Facebook Live have become the preferred virtual venues of candidates trying to amplify their message.

But Coleman said using social media effectively is an art form that requires close attention and candidate discipline.

“It’s all about limiting yourself to three or four issues that people care about and responding judiciously online,” he said. “Ultimately, it is about your story and how it matches up with the people you’re trying to reach.”

Longtime strategist Mike Mikus, who is working for the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, the Forest Hills Democrat, said candidates have had to become creative with tools like tele-town halls that attempt to mimic candidate forums.

“We had plans to send people door-to-door in targeted precincts to see people we wanted to talk to, but that’s out of the question now. The one thing you can still do is phone banking. There are web-based programs people use to log in remotely for that. That was going on for a while already,” he said.

Doyle, 66, a 13-term moderate who came to office after serving as a staffer in the state Senate, in the primary faces Jerry Dickinson, a 33-year-old law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He is running on a progressive platform in the Pittsburgh-based 18th District.

Dickinson laid the foundation for his challenge with a yearlong shoe-leather campaign that took him to communities across the district, said Will Taylor, a political consultant with the campaign. He also has used Facebook town halls with panels of experts in recent weeks.

Although candidate forums and debates that typically characterize campaigns have largely gone by the wayside this year, Doyle and Dickinson are slated to participate in two virtual debates. WTAE-TV plans to broadcast a virtual debate on May 20, and the Pittsburgh NAACP is finalizing arrangements for a May 21 virtual debate between the two.

Each candidate will answer questions from follow ups from remote locations.

Annette Shimer, of the Allegheny County League of Women Voters, said her organization has employed professional producers to create a template for such events that take into consideration the need for candidates to appear in good lighting and have adequate audio when they face off.

While those debates will no doubt provide information for voters, Coleman said the remote nature will provide a watered-down version of the kind of action face-to-face debates provide.

“That’s sad because much of a debate is about body language and how a candidate reacts, what rattles a candidate or impact does something have,” he said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .

Coronavirus | Local | Pennsylvania | Allegheny | Politics Election | Top Stories

Published at Sun, 17 May 2020 00:25:59 +0000

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