Pandemic politics: SC candidates struggle to reach leery voters before the primary elections
No handshakes. Forget about neighborhood cookouts, rallies and town hall gatherings. And think twice about knocking on a voter's door.
The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed how candidates in South Carolina's June 9 primaries are campaigning. Analysts say the new landscape tends to favor incumbents who are familiar to donors and voters alike.
“It is just a different kind of world," said state Rep. Neal Collins, a Republican from Easley who is seeking a fourth term representing state House District 5.
Many candidates are trying to figure out how to appeal to two groups of voters who could play key roles.
One includes older residents and those with underlying medical conditions who are most at risk for COVID-19. Many of them are expected to cast "no excuse" absentee ballots — a first-time option that legislators approved last week to avoid lines at polling places. Several candidates said they doubt that these health-conscious voters are eager to see politicians standing on their porches.
The other block of key voters consists of people who blame government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions for damaging the economy and limiting their personal freedoms.
Political campaigning is different in this era of coronavirus
State Sen. Richard Cash has learned to resist his political instincts during the pandemic. The Powdersville Republican is being challenged in next month's primary by Anderson County Councilman Craig Wooten.
"The idea will pop into your mind that I need to go see so-and-so, I need to walk down the street and go to these various businesses and talk to people," Cash said. "Then you think, 'Oh yeah, even if I'm practicing social distancing, that's still not a very good idea for me to be going door to door trying to talk to people.'
"It is not exactly what you should be doing."
Greenville County Republican Party Chairman Nate Leupp acknowledged "this is a difficult time for our candidates to campaign."
In a May 6 Facebook Live broadcast, Leupp and GOP leaders from Anderson, Laurens, Pickens and Spartanburg counties told candidates that it is safe to canvass neighborhoods provided that they stay eight feet from voters.
Wearing a mask and gloves, Greenville County Council candidate Stacy Kuper has begun venturing out to campaign with her family and volunteers. She said she wants to meet voters before they start casting absentee ballots in the race between her, incumbent Councilman Rick Roberts and first-time candidate Chris Harrison.
Roberts said he spent a lot of time going door to door throughout council District 21 in 2016 when he beat Kuper in a runoff. But he has altered his tactics this year.
"If you knock on someone's door and they don't feel comfortable, you're not helping your campaign," he said. "But more than that, you are adding stress to someone who doesn't need it."
Until concerns about COVID-19 ease, many candidates are using other means to get out their messages. They are working the phones, focusing on Facebook, relying on campaign signs and sending out mailers.
"We're obviously utilizing social media as best we can," Harrison said.
Roberts said the pace of this year's campaign is also different.
"In this time that we are in right now, I think campaigning is almost secondary to the other issues that we have going on," he said. "I think everybody has been a little slower moving because we realize that people are in survival mode."
Consultant's advice for challengers: 'I'm telling you not to run'
Experts say the pandemic has made it difficult for political challengers to introduce themselves to voters or raise money for campaign ads.
"The environment is uphill for a challenger anyway, but it's like Mount Everest to do it this year," said David Woodard, a retired Clemson University professor who has worked as a consultant for candidates. "You're just almost hopeless."
Woodard said a couple of challengers called recently to ask about hiring him.
"I told them, 'I am not helping you, and I'm telling you not to run," he said.
According to Woodard, one of the candidates was willing to invest $35,000 of his own money in a bid to win a state legislative seat.
"I said, 'How would you feel if you went to the bank and got $35,000, took it out to a field and set it on fire and watched it burn?'"
State Rep. Anne Thayer, a Republican from Anderson who is running unopposed for a sixth term representing state House District 9, agreed that "this is the year of the incumbent."
"If you're running against someone, you can't even go out and campaign," she said. "You can't go knock on a door. You can't have a fundraiser."
Former Simpsonville Mayor Janice Curtis is one of the challengers who faces a major financial disadvantage. Curtis is running in the Republican primary against state Sen. Ross Turner, who has $123,187 in campaign cash on hand, according to a state disclosure that he filed last month. In an interview earlier this month, Curtis said she has raised less than $500.
"He has a large war chest there, no question," Curtis said. "Being the incumbent, I know he is going to be difficult to beat."
Curtis said the pandemic "has really put a halt to all of our campaigning right now." And at the same time, she said, her cosmetic studio and spa are struggling.
Despite these problems, she said she never considered dropping out of the race.
"If you're not going to jump out there when times are hard, then you don't need to be involved in it anyway," Curtis said.
Turner raked in $103,000 in campaign contributions during the third quarter of 2019, months before the pandemic hit. He is seeking a third four-year term in state Senate District 8.
He said his strategy for the primary is to "get as many signs in people's yards as we can."
"I am not taking anything for granted," Turner said.
According to Turner, primary races are unpredictable because they typically attract a low voter turnout.
And Turner said public sentiment about how government officials have responded to the pandemic is another cause for concern for incumbents.
"You also are dealing with a situation right now that the primary is going to be the first chance that a lot of people have to voice their opinion on what is going on, whether you had anything do with it or not," Turner said.
Collins, the legislator from Easley, disputed the notion that the pandemic has given incumbents an upper hand. He is competing against the same two challengers, David Cox and Allan Quinn, in this year's primary that he did in 2018.
"My strengths are the group settings and door-knocking. I think I have more successful events than my opponents," Collins said. "It is deja vu from two years ago, so in a way I feel that I'm more disadvantaged than they are."
Quinn, who lost to Collins in a runoff in 2018, said this year's campaign has been much harder.
"We're pretty much restricted to signs that we can get out and Facebook and newspaper ads," he said. "We all have our hands tied."
Follow Kirk Brown on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM