In the usual turn from winter, the spring serves as a pivot point for House races. Incumbents, having built up their fundraising accounts, start to take aim at their opponents — who would in turn start to gain attention and begin raising the amount of campaign cash that would make them competitive in the fall.
The TV ad wars would begin over the next few weeks, and aides would start door-to-door campaigning to establish a data set that would allow their teams to identify their biggest supporters and learn what undecided voters were looking for in a candidate.
All of that would build to the final months of a competitive race where a candidate could expect to do four to 10 public events a day in front of crowds ranging from a dozen to a few hundred people, according to Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.).
“Sunup to sundown, and then some,” Cunningham recalled of his public campaign schedule in his upset victory in 2018.
Now, with the virus and stay-at-home orders prohibiting large public events and virtually freezing their fundraising, candidates and strategists alike have no idea what awaits their races.
“It’s going to be different,” Cunningham said.
That’s for sure.
Democrats currently hold 232 seats, with a special election in Baltimore later this month certain to add another to their column and a competitive special election next month north of Los Angeles possibly giving them 234 seats heading into November. They will have a buffer of at least 15 seats to hold the majority.
Because of their 2018 successes, Democrats are on the defensive. According to Cook Political Report’s ratings, Democrats hold 17 seats that are rated toss-up, with another 18 that “lean” in their direction. Republicans hold just five toss-up seats and another 11 that lean their way.
Less than two months ago, the House GOP seemed hopeful of bucking tradition and becoming the first caucus to win back the majority during a presidential election since 1952.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had emerged as the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and Republicans were trying to pin his socialist democratic views on centrists like Cunningham and Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), who won a swing seat around Salt Lake City in 2018.
Now, with Sanders ceding the nomination to former vice president Joe Biden, Republicans lost their favorite political piñata. And, over the last month, President Trump signed nearly $2.5 trillion worth of recovery legislation, with hundreds of billions more already in the pipeline.
Elements of the emergency relief — free grants to small businesses so they can pay employees who are not working — make the socialism charge a less potent line of attack now that Republicans have embraced deploying such aid in the fight to steady the economy.
Fundraising has come to a near standstill for congressional candidates, something that might help Democratic incumbents, including nearly three dozen of whom had banked more than $1 million by last fall.
Traditional events to raise campaign cash, like dinners with 50 or so supporters on fundraising swings through Washington, are prohibited under health guidelines by federal and local officials.
While Trump and Biden will continue their open combat, through TV appearances and online platforms, congressional campaign strategists are advising their candidates to keep a low profile and try to look respectful at this moment.
Some Republican challengers have turned to their own version of constituent services during this paralyzed state of their campaigns. In California, Ted Howze and Young Kim illustrated this approach in two likely must-win districts if Republicans have any chance to reclaim the majority.
Howze, running in the Central Valley against Rep. Josh Harder (D), has purchased food and other supplies to deliver to the elderly and veterans in the district. Kim, running against Rep. Gil Cisneros (D) in a seat anchored in Orange County, has tried to coordinate volunteers to donate masks and other protective gear to local hospitals.
“Every little bit that we do today will make a huge difference to those who are effected by the virus. Together, we will get through this,” Kim said in a video.
Strategists in both parties are just waiting for incumbents or challengers to do something that seems impolitic. The National Republican Congressional Committee jumped on comments by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) on a video town hall in which he boasted how his district produced all of the disinfectant Lysol and suggested withholding it from Kentucky to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to act on House-passed legislation.
“I thought about using that with, like, Mitch McConnell. Like, hey, you know, we’re going to hold up the Lysol to Kentucky until you pass our election-security bill,” he said, quickly calling it a “fantasy.”
But Democrats pounced when supporters of Nicole Malliotakis, running in one of the most competitive races against freshman Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), posted a social media picture of the Republican state assemblywoman before a trunk filled with sanitizer and medical products as if she were delivering them to health-care workers.
Malliotakis’s image actually was photoshopped into that post, as Democrats highlighted that Rose, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his Army service in Afghanistan, is currently serving with the National Guard helping construct a hospital on Staten Island.
Many freshmen described their first year in Congress as learning three new jobs at once — how to be a legislator in the Capitol, how to run constituent services and how to campaign as an incumbent.
Cunningham and McAdams, in interviews last week discussing their recoveries from contracting covid-19, both said their jobs are now almost all constituent services. During his quarantine, Cunningham worked with the State Department to get 11 constituents home from Peru.
After eight days in a Salt Lake City hospital, McAdams believes that his reelection now depends largely upon how much he can help his constituents through this crisis.
“That’s the best thing I can do to get reelected,” he said.