WASHINGTON – Rich McCormick is balancing two different crises.
He spends his nights as an emergency room doctor, intubating patients as his hospital and others across the nation continue to feel the wrath of COVID-19. During the day, he make his pitch to voters in the suburbs of Atlanta, hoping to hold a House seat for Republicans in what had been rated one of the most competitive races in the country.
Republicans are banking on candidates like McCormick to take back the House from Democrats but a barrage of crises have made the path to victory increasingly difficult.
It was only a few months ago that Republicans were bullish on their chances of retaking the House. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive boogeyman that Republicans hoped could help their hand, was ahead in the presidential primary race. The economy was expanding, and unemployment rates were falling to all-time lows. And House Democrats were focused on impeachment, an act that led to one member changing parties to become a Republican.
But less than four months until November, a lot has changed.
The dozen or so seats Republicans need to take the House majority appear to be falling further from their grasp as coronavirus continues to spread across the globe and a host of polls show President Donald Trump struggling against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden amid a national reckoning with racism and policing.
Republicans have their sights specifically set on 54 House seats across the country. The districts include about 30 that were won by Trump in 2016 but turned blue in the midterms. Democrats currently control 233 seats out of the chamber’s 435.
Over the months, crisis after crisis has rattled the country and its politics, forcing political newcomers and incumbents in swing districts to adapt. Challengers are struggling to break out in while they campaign via town halls recorded in their homes, and incumbents in swing districts are walking a tightrope on addressing some of the most controversial political issues, including Trump’s performance.
“It’s almost like the perfect storm,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “The economy, the virus, the police issue all leading up to one very important election.”
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Virus ‘complicates’ incumbent races
In early spring, Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, called around to small businesses in her district eager to hear how they were coping as the coronavirus pandemic closed businesses across the country. One shuttered restaurant owner in Des Moines was having trouble accessing a loan so Axne dialed up the head of the state’s Small Business Administration. The three worked it out together on the phone.
“I said, ‘We’re going to solve this right now.’ And so that’s how you get things done. You don’t ever drop the ball for your constituents, especially when we’re going through a time like this,” Axne told USA TODAY.
Axne was part of the “blue wave” in 2018 that allowed Democrats to take control of the House. She beat out Republican incumbent Rep. David Young, who is now running again to reclaim his seat.
For Axne and other swing-district Democrats fighting to keep their seats, coronavirus has created an unusual situation. And for freshmen lawmakers, the first re-election battle is often the hardest. The election marks the first time freshman incumbents have to defend their record, proving their victory was not a fluke and they have real staying power.
But honing in on those constituent connections has been particularly difficult this year with the elimination of traditional in-person campaigning and a bright spotlight on how lawmakers have handled the series of crises gripping the nation.
“It’s absolutely shifted so much of my life in this position, from the work and how we conduct work on the official side, to campaigning,” Axne said. “It’s affecting every single bit of my job as I represent Iowans and as I go out to try and earn their votes this fall.”
Throughout the pandemic, like much of her time in Congress, Axne has attempted to appeal to both partisan branches of her constituency. She frequently criticized Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds for not declaring a stay-at-home order and has spoken out about concerning coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants. But she has also put herself at odds with fellow Democrats, voting against a Democratic-led COVID-19 emergency package that she argued would “waste taxpayer dollars.”
“This virus issue complicates the landscape for people like Axne,” said Goldford. “It basically complicates what is already a complicated re-election bid.”
Goldford explained that in times of crisis, typically the country comes together. But coronavirus has led to even more partisan lines being drawn, a problem for those in swing districts where hardline partisanship doesn’t play well.
Politicization is only one of the extra hurdles facing frontline members as campaigning has been turned upside down. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. — the chairwoman of Democrats’ House campaign arm — noted they have shifted their hiring to focus on digital and virtual outreach.
“I think things are very different now. We have to campaign in a different way. And we have to communicate with people we represent in a different way” she said in an interview.
She noted efforts to mobilize volunteers working from home and mobile director hires dispatched to campaigns across the country in hopes of increasing virtual efforts.
“We know this moment that we are living in right now and we’re adjusting to it,” Bustos added. She said the virus has opened a door for Democrats to focus even more heavily on health care – an issue the party credits with helping them gain the majority in the House two years ago. “We’re the party that is fighting for health care while they become this party encouraging drinking bleach. I mean, there’s just this clear, clear contrast.”
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It’s not just incumbents who are finding campaigning difficult. Candidates trying to knock out incumbents are also facing an unprecedented challenge.
The battleground districts of 2020 vary significantly from the last cycle. Democrats won many of the seats considered the most competitive in 2018, so this time, many Democrats are aiming to win seats in redder territory.
But Democrats also are on the defensive in many House districts. Only three congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 are represented by Republicans, and 31 districts won by Trump are represented by Democrats.
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It’s crucial for the GOP to break out in these races.
McCormick, the emergency room doctor running in the Atlanta suburbs, says he has resumed some in-person campaign events and meetings, albeit socially distanced.
“Different people take risks all the time,” he said. His campaign was holding events based on the level of comfort people had.
“We really tried to adapt to every situation given each individual. What we’ve tried to do is also accommodate people in their own environment,” he said, whether that meant going to a synagogue and handing out masks before an event, or holding events through Zoom for those who were uncomfortable with in-person events.
While Republicans are battling an uphill road in races across the country, some have expressed optimism after a surprise win in California’s 25th district in a May special election — the first time the GOP has turned a California district from blue to red in more than 20 years. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and chairman of House Republicans’ campaign arm, touted the win in an interview and said there were dozens of districts where Republicans appear even better positioned to take back seats.
“After a win in California’s 25th District, which is the suburbs of Los Angeles, I would tell you two things: If we can win in the suburbs of Los Angeles, we can and will win everywhere we need to in the fall,” he said. “In fact, we now have 43 Democrats sitting in seats that are actually better positioned for Republican candidates than California 25.”
Emmer acknowledged the shifting campaign environment with corona virus continuing to hit states and the heightened tensions over race and the president’s response but said Republicans were adjusting.
He attacked Democrats’ plans to focus on health care, saying that the party has done “nothing” over the last two years to act on their promises. “I hope they’ve run on their lack of achievement in not only health care but everything else, because all they’ve ever done for the last three years plus is try to impeach this president,” Emmer said.
Emmer also tied Democrats to the push to defend the police in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. “I do think that’s going to be on the ballot because I do think the majority of Americans, if not all of us, want to be safe and secure in our home,” Emmer said.
Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat running in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, which sits in the south-central suburbs of Houston, said in an interview that he is relying on “relational organizing” among volunteers’ own social networks, repeating strategies from his previous run for the seat in 2018.
The district is seen by Democrats as a pickup opportunity as the district has become more racially diverse and affluent. The retiring incumbent, Rep. Pete Olson, only won by five percentage points in 2018 when Trump won by 8 points in 2016, and Romney won nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2012.
Kulkarni’s campaign has not yet returned in-person events as coronavirus cases spiked in the Houston area, so every Sunday, his campaign holds a “virtual campaign academy” to learn how to leverage their own tightly-knit networks, like Vietnamese or Chinese immigrants, Gujarati speakers, or Sunni Muslims.
Other candidates are looking on the bright side of virtual campaigning. Carolyn Bourdeaux, a college professor running against McCormick as a Democrat in the for the Georgia U.S. House seat, said the pandemic gave her campaign an opportunity to reach out to more young people as internships and summer work dried up.
Bourdeaux ran for the seat in 2018 and only lost by about 400 votes. But this time, she was confident she could close the gap.
The young people working with her campaign helped her launch an app called “Electify” to help people get involved with the campaign through their smartphones, and she launched a weekly Facebook Live show over Zoom called “Carolyn’s Corner” featuring conversations with local leaders and constituents.
“We have over 40 interns, fellows, and organizers, and they help with really massive outreach effort,” she said.