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In 2022, Democrats determined to keep campaigning in person

During the pandemic’s first year, many Democratic campaigns eschewed in-person canvassing while Republicans didn’t. This year they say they won't be staying home again.

Gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks with Stephanie Hanson before a canvassing drive by the Texas Organizing Project in West Dallas in June 2021 (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Jan. 13, 2022, 6:59 p.m.

In the wake of the 2020 election, as some Democrats blamed progressives for the party’s downballot losses, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to other possible explanations—including the fact that Democrats pulled back from in-person campaigning that year in a way Republicans did not.

“[T]he decision to stop knocking doors is one people need to grapple with and analyze,” she tweeted, praising progressive allies who continued canvassing in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, Democrats could hope that those words would serve as mere Monday-morning quarterbacking, rather than advice they would need to consider. Widely available vaccines were on the horizon, and it was possible to imagine a midterm-election year largely free from the coronavirus.

Instead, the uber-contagious Omicron variant has forced the party to grapple again with decisions about how to campaign, as cases surge and hospitals are overwhelmed. This year, though, they’re taking a new tack, largely agreeing on the importance of meeting voters where they are.

In a country plagued by pandemic fatigue, nearly every Democratic campaign and strategist who spoke to National Journal said that they now know enough about the virus to allow for safe campaigning in the field. Democrats of all stripes were already planning to take precautions—most importantly, masking up—so they could interact in person, and those plans haven’t changed because of Omicron.

Nowhere is this more true than in Texas, where primaries are just a month-and-a-half away. The Texas Tribune reported this week that Lone Star State Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and House candidate Jessica Cisneros, are moving forward with face-to-face campaigning. Greg Casar, running in Texas’s open 35th District with the support of the Working Families Party and the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, is continuing with in-person canvassing as well.

“We're just really trying to emphasize safety so that we can keep staying committed to knocking on doors through the primary, because that's just a really important part of our campaign,” said Casar campaign manager Laura Hernandez Holmes in an interview with National Journal. “Despite Omicron, we know we still need to talk to voters where it's easiest for them, at their door and in their community.”

She said 1,000 volunteers signed up with the campaign when Casar launched his bid, and that the team would continue activating that group for direct voter engagement over the coming weeks.

After Texas, the primary calendar offers some breathing room; the next contests are scheduled for May. Several candidates with more time on their hands weren’t planning on knocking doors this month, anyway, so they can hope that the surge dies down before crunch time. But regardless of how the pandemic plays out, Democrats across the country say they are committed to an in-person offensive this cycle.

In a statement to National Journal, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said, “Our goal is to implement in-person direct voter field programs—like we did during the Georgia runoffs in 2020—and [we] will have policies in place to do so safely.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Chris Taylor said the party’s House campaign arm is taking a similar approach. “[The] DCCC began organizing for the cycle last spring and we’ll continue operating direct voter contact programs by prioritizing the health and safety of our staff, volunteers, and voters,” he wrote.

And while Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner did not have details on in-person campaign efforts, he did say that the Omicron surge has not changed the DGA’s guidance.

This time around, it’s the antiestablishment campaigns that are talking about the extra precautions that Omicron has spurred them to take. In conversations with National Journal, these campaigns emphasized that this approach aligns with their understanding that working-class people just can’t afford to get sick.

Hernandez Holmes said that before Omicron, the Casar campaign held events in person at outdoor venues with enough space to social distance and with campaign staff masked just to be safe. Since the latest wave of the virus, events also now include a virtual option, a format several other progressive and populist campaigns said they are now embracing as well.

In Pennsylvania, a spokesperson for John Fetterman’s Senate campaign said that the team was temporarily moving events to Zoom to protect the health of voters, staffers, the candidate, and his family, which includes young children. Any in-person events held this month will be very small. But the campaign hopes that case numbers will go down in the coming weeks and it can return to having more frequent, bigger events by February.

Nicole Aghaaliandastjerdi, campaign manager for Attica Scott, a self-identified progressive running in Kentucky’s 3rd District, said that Omicron prompted the campaign to shift to holding only virtual events. The shift happened towards the end of the year, when the campaign saw Louisville churches begin to pivot to virtual services. A fundraiser to celebrate the candidate’s 50th birthday at the end of the month will be online instead of in person.

“For the last two years, we've had to learn how to pivot all over the world, whether that's in work or in political life,” Aghaaliandastjerdi said. “So I think that we have been doing virtual long enough that people have come up with better ideas, better tools of engagement.”

And while the campaign is not currently having conversations at doors, as it did before the surge, it is continuing to drop campaign materials at voters’ houses.

“The voter doesn't know that you didn't try to do a real canvass,” Aghaaliandastjerdi said. “Even if they were home, they may think, ‘Maybe I just didn't hear when you knocked on the door.’ But that's still a touch point. We're still reaching those voters.”

For Morgan Harper’s Senate campaign in Ohio, county parties are now holding drive-through events to help collect the signatures she needs to qualify for the ballot. An upcoming meet-and-greet that was scheduled to take place at a supporter’s home was made virtual per the wishes of the host.

Several campaigns that spoke to National Journal are also mindful of taking extra steps to make their teams feel safe. Hernandez Holmes mentioned that staffers on Casar’s campaign were given a paid day off to get their booster shots and recover from any side effects. Harper’s campaign is currently allowing staffers to work remotely as they see fit.

Harper herself still does some masked in-person meetings, often outdoors, despite the harsh Ohio winter. She is looking forward to a time when the pandemic no longer forces such unpredictable changes and trade-offs.

“We're at the position of being really good at transitioning to virtual but, you know, nothing can really replace just being able to connect with folks in person,” she said.

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