“I’m busy as I’ve ever been, but it’s different,” said McAuliffe, who between video chats has alphabetized every spice tin and soup can in his McLean kitchen. “You’re not shaking hands. You’re not hugging anybody. . . . I love that part of it. I’ve just had to learn to adapt.”
Running for office during a pandemic means running in place. And the effects aren’t confined to this year’s contests. The novel coronavirus is putting a severe crimp on next year’s race for Virginia governor — a contest McAuliffe seems to be inching closer to entering.
“I get asked [about running] every call,” said McAuliffe, who spends most of his days on Zoom trying to rally Democrats across Virginia and the country for Biden, a friend of 40 years. “And I tell everyone I’m focused on Biden. That’s my top [priority]. . . . But I tell people it’s a strong possibility that I’ll be running again.”
He added: “Our state is going to face tremendous challenges, and those are the types of challenges that get me excited.”
The governor’s race should be in full swing in the commonwealth, with nominating contests about a year away. By this time four years ago, Democrat Ralph Northam had a campaign staff in place and countless meet-and-greets behind him, while Republican Ed Gillespie had raised nearly $1 million and driven the length of the state along Route 58.
This time around, there’s no glad-handing. Rallies have been canceled, kickoffs nixed as Northam, now governor, declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
Even fundraising has hit the skids. Although dialing for dollars poses no public health risk, it’s an awkward enterprise with people losing loved ones and jobs, and well-heeled political donors reeling from stock market losses.
“Obviously people are dying, and we don’t want to be doing political, asking-for-money stuff,” said an aide to one contender, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a sensitive subject. “There’s no way to segue into, ‘Oh yeah, 73 people are dead and give us 100 bucks.’ ”
To veterans of past campaigns, the rhythms are out of whack.
“It feels like everything is frozen,” said Tucker Martin, who served on campaigns for three of the last four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. “Nobody has a road map.”
Democrats had been bracing for an unusually lively primary, with a large number of party figures planning or publicly flirting with a run. They include McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark R. Herring, Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William), state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
Northam cannot run because Virginia prohibits its governors from serving back-to-back terms. That would not bar McAuliffe, who left office in January 2018; he’s been weighing a bid since opting out of this year’s presidential primary. The filing deadline, typically in the spring, has not yet been set.
So far, the field is smaller for Republicans, who have not won a statewide race here since 2009. State Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield) is the lone declared candidate. Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur who unsuccessfully sought the 2013 GOP nomination for lieutenant governor, is considering a run. So is Charles “Bill” Carrico, a retired state trooper and former Republican state senator from Grayson County, in the state’s far southwest.
Alone among contenders, Chase has found ways to appear before large crowds. She has twice spoken at drive-in church services, including one on Mother’s Day. On Wednesday, she led an anti-shutdown demonstration on Capitol Square.
But she’s scrapped 53 rallies and other events, including an appearance at Liberty University.
Carroll Foy scuttled her plans for a “major announcement” after the General Assembly adjourned in March. She filed her paperwork for candidacy in April with no fanfare.
Many contenders say the health and economic crises have rightly shifted their attention away from campaigning and toward serving constituents who are suffering physically or financially.
Herring is staying in touch with supporters by phone and video, “but for the most part he is focused on his important work as attorney general,” including taking action against “price gouging, evictions and utility cutoffs,” said Tommy Keefe, director of his political action committee.
McClellan has worked behind the scenes to sort out snags with small-business loans and unemployment benefits, and she has helped local funeral directors secure personal protective equipment, her spokesman said.
She has conducted virtual meetings with the local, state and national groups — from Richmond-area domestic workers to the Center for American Progress — whose support she will need if she moves ahead with a run.
Snyder created a fund to help businesses meet payroll and other expenses until federal help arrives — a move he said was unrelated to his potential campaign.
The crisis has handed contenders a chance to demonstrate leadership, and some are offering the current governor friendly (and not-so-friendly) advice.
Fairfax urged Northam in a March 18 letter to take “bolder and swifter” action to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, including closing schools for the year. At the time, only Kansas had gone that far. Northam followed suit on March 23.
“People in this moment are focused on leadership and not politics,” said Fairfax, who has held conference calls with pastors and others struggling with the shutdown. “Anyone who is talking politics right now is out of step with the needs of the people.”
Carroll Foy, who held a virtual town hall May 5 with front-line workers, has peppered Northam on Twitter on a wide range of coronavirus issues — from mandating masks on public transit to preparing for all-mail voting.
Carrico has questioned Northam’s social distancing orders via Facebook. “Nothing in the 1st amendment allows the Governor to restrict the free exercise of religion because of a pandemic,” he wrote in mid-April, referring to a limitation on indoor church services to 10 people or fewer.
Chase, who prides herself on Trumpian swagger, has been the most aggressive, accusing Northam of causing a “government-induced recession.” The protests she has organized have formed the basis of fundraising appeals.
“We must continue to rally and keep up the fight!” she wrote on Facebook last week. “In order for us to continue to do this we need your financial support!”
Chase said she’s only making “soft pitches” for money.
“We really do want to be sensitive,” she said. “These are difficult times for so many families.”
The restrictions could have some upside for candidates, said Martin, the veteran GOP campaign hand. It spares them grueling travel, and the time saved might allow for more leisurely get-togethers online.
“Whereas a party volunteer may get a grip-and-grin at a chicken dinner, now they get maybe 30 minutes one-on-one time via Zoom,” Martin said. “It may be remote, but their interaction may be more in-depth. And it’s not as though the candidate can say, ‘Hey, I gotta go.’ . . . Now you’ve got nowhere to go.”