On Thursday evening, Tom Watson, the democratic candidate for U.S. House District 19, took questions from voters.
He wasn’t at a rally, or a fundraising, or at a restaurant or any type of gathering. He was in front of a computer. On the screen with him was a moderator and a few guest hosts, who were also in front of their computers. The questions were from people who were on their computers as well.
With COVID-19 and the restrictions on gatherings, this has become the norm. Events are taking place virtually. Outreach is done largely on social media.
The virtual event lasted about an hour and a half. Views when it was live ranged from about 10-20 people. A day later, Facebook said the video had about 600 views.
These types of events are a far cry from the campaign these candidates envisioned running. Shaking hands and kissing babies isn’t allowed during a health pandemic. People probably aren’t as receptive to strangers knocking on their door. Campaigning, which is meant to be personal, is being done at a distance.
“It’s been a different experience,” Watson said over the phone this week. “You just can’t show up, you need to plan things. It’s a very interesting experience. I do a lot of Zoom meetings… We try to make social media contacts, telephone calls and all those sorts of things.”
Watson, who filed last year, was hosting events before COVID-19 was confirmed in West Texas in March. In March, he said, everything stopped.
Watson is a lawyer in Abilene, and something he wanted to do was visit the courthouses in District 19, which stretches to the east to Abilene and to the west to the Texas/New Mexico border. He thought he’d stop by, introduce himself to people and go to the town’s hotspots. Because of COVID-19, he can’t.
“You don’t put as many miles on your vehicle,” Watson said.
Instead, he’s organizing virtual town hall meetings with different topics.
Watson is challenging U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington for the seat. One of Watson’s biggest obstacles, which is the obstacle all challengers face, is name recognition.
There are a handful of challengers on the general election ballot. Democrat John Gibson is challenging John Frullo in House District 84, Democrat Addison Perry-Franks of Snyder is running for Texas House District 83 against incumbent Dustin Burrows.
Incumbents seem to have figured out new ways of campaigning. Texas Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who’s being challenged by Democrat MJ Hegar, has visited Lubbock twice in the past few weeks to discuss funding from the CARES Act. The first event was with the leaders at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, and the second was with leaders at Lubbock ISD.
While these aren’t advertised as campaign stops, the events get television cameras, coverage in the newspaper and just as much social media exposure. What’s missing is the public.
Arrington hosted a media tour through one of the high schools and a bill signing event last month. Both received lots of coverage.
Gibson, who’s running for state representative against Republican incumbent Frullo, said his campaign has essentially gone virtual due to COVID-19. When they do get out, he said it’s mostly at outdoor events that are already happening.
“Really, the only thing you can do is go on Facebook, go on social media, and let people know what’s going on, let me people know the issues,” Gibson said this week. “We go to events where we know people will be receptive if we come up and talk to them, particularly outdoor events. But no going door-to-door.”
Gibson said the traffic on social media varies. He said they’ve had success with some and not with others. He said it’s hit or miss, but hopes it adds up in the end.
He said it’s tough to get his message out right now. Gibson, who wants to talk about income inequality, medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform and eliminating no-knock warrants, says it’s hard to reach people to discuss those in-depth issues.
“It’s very tough right now to run a real issues-driven campaign without the clickbait that gets people to click and see what’s going on during a virtual town hall or a virtual campaign event,” Gibson said. “That makes it difficult. There’s so much clickbait you’re competing with online.”
When Gibson signed up to run, he envisioned knocking on doors, being in the July 4 parade, speaking in front of civic organizations, and much more face-to-face communication. He said it’s a difficult election for challengers.
In the local elections, Stephen Sanders is challenging Mayor Dan Pope, Gordon Harris is challenging Shelia Patterson Harris for Lubbock City Council in District 2 and Kaylon Dean Northcutt is challenging Latrelle Joy in District 6.
Sanders has actually hosted a few outdoor campaign events. He said he’s been knocking on doors as well. He said he understands when people don’t want to talk, and he respects their space.
He said the in-person events are hit or miss, as well. He gets the sense that most people don’t want to attend gatherings with COVID-19. He’s also spending more time on social media, and has organized small gatherings at households. He’s still campaigning, he just said COVID-19 presents different challenges.
“I’m at every event that’s going on around town, too,” Sanders said. “I’m working really hard. It’s been a little challenging, but if you’re really committed to running for office, you need to do whatever it takes. But yeah, it’s been difficult.”
Another wrinkle is campaigning of late, although it has nothing to do with COVID-19, is that phone banking is getting more and more challenging. This has been an ongoing trend as the growing number of households don’t have home phones, just individual cell phones.
Watson did say one of the benefits to virtual campaigning is that he can speak to people in different areas of the district on the same day. He’s not having to spend the day traveling from Graham to Seminole, then up to Plainview — it’s on Zoom.
Watson says he’s curious to see how 2020 shapes how campaigns are run in elections moving forward. He said maybe there’s parts of these virtual campaigns that’ll be here to stay.