COVID-19 Has Upended Elections. One Challenger In Maryland Still Thinks She Has A Shot The coronavirus pandemic has caused elections nationwide to be postponed, which includes Maryland's primary.
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COVID-19 Has Upended Elections. One Challenger In Maryland Still Thinks She Has A Shot

COVID-19 Has Upended Elections. One Challenger In Maryland Still Thinks She Has A Shot

Mckayla Wilkes from Maryland's southern Congressional District has had to swap in-person campaign events for virtual town halls. Courtesy of/Mckayla Wilkes Campaign hide caption

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Courtesy of/Mckayla Wilkes Campaign

The coronavirus pandemic has postponed elections nationwide. That includes Maryland's primary in which a little known candidate from the state's 5th Congressional District is trying to unseat a 20-term incumbent. And while the prospect of an upset for the challenger was a long shot before, it's even more daunting now.

Mckayla Wilkes, who is a single mom, former defense contractor and previously incarcerated individual, is challenging Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Wilkes used to reach out to voters of the 5th District at shopping malls and other public areas — a strategy called deep canvassing — but the progressive candidate has had to resort to phone and text banking and virtual town halls because of the public health crisis.

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"I mean one monkey don't stop no show," Wilkes said via a virtual town hall on her Twitter page. "Nothing has changed. We've just transitioned the way we reached out to everyone in the community, and I think it's going good."

She's part of a new wave of progressive politics that began sweeping the country during the 2018 congressional elections. The 29-year-old is trying to achieve a similar victory to that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset a 10-term incumbent in New York's 14th District.

"I love AOC, and I love the precedent she has set for regular people to run for Congress, but I do not want to be the next AOC," Wilkes told WAMU. "I want to be the first Mckayla Wilkes."

While Wilkes already faced an uphill battle to win Democratic votes, Antonio Ugues, director of St. Mary's College Center for the Study of Democracy, says the current crisis has made it even more difficult to challenge Hoyer.

"During times of crisis there are historical trends of wanting to stick with the folks that are the incumbents, the leaders," Ugues said. "This is not as an opportune moment for Wilkes to register as a significant challenger to the Hoyer campaign because of the global crisis."

Wilkes has started hosting virtual campaign events like this one that stream on her Twitter page. Screenshot of/Mckayla Wilkes Campaign event hide caption

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Screenshot of/Mckayla Wilkes Campaign event

But Wilkes says she's not deterred. She says one of the biggest reasons she decided to run on the federal level is to continue the progressive movement Ocasio-Cortez started in 2018.

"We deserve people who look like us in Congress," Wilkes said. "Having these same older white males who have been career politicians for so long — that's a disservice to the people in our community."

Not only is her district different, but so is her incumbent challenger.

A Hard To Beat Incumbent

Over his 20 terms in Congress, 80-year-old Hoyer has had a lot of Democratic primary challengers. Even some residents of Charles County, who gathered for Wilkes' campaign event earlier this year at the Waldorf Library, say they've lost track of how many times they've voted for Hoyer.

Other residents, like Patricia Long, say they think Hoyer is disconnected from their community and Wilkes could be a new alternative.

"[Hoyer] doesn't even hold town hall meetings," Long said. "When people know [they'll win] over and over again they don't really have to cater to the people they cater to themselves. It's all about them and not the people they represent."

While Congressman Hoyer has refused to debate Wilkes, he has directly commented on that criticism.

"I attend town halls, telephone town halls on a regular basis," Hoyer said in an interview with WAMU. "I meet people on a regular basis. I go to a lot of events in the district. I do emails. I have a website that points out the positions that I take."

Last month, Congress passed a $2 trillion spending package. Ugues says Hoyer is leveraging his position in Congress to show that he is willing to take action to combat the public health crisis.

"He has the name recognition, he has the credibility, he has the confidence among the electorate," Ugues said. "On top of that, he has the resources he's raised a significant amount of money as you would expect for an incumbent."

Hoyer has raised more than $2.8 million in contributions and has about $1.6 million cash on hand, since the end of March. More than half of his contributions come from super PACs, pharmaceutical companies and other industries. But Hoyer says he's not beholden to those large donors.

"I think my constituents have returned me to office a number of times because they believe I'm representing their interests," Hoyer said. "Notwithstanding the fact that numerous people contribute to me, and they contribute to me because they think I'm doing a good job."

At the end of March, Wilkes has raised nearly $207,000 in mostly individual campaign contributions and had $85,729 cash on hand.

Wilkes is backed by Brand New Congress, an organization that has supported progressive congressional candidates since 2016. Ocasio-Cortez was the organization's first successful candidate in 2018. In exchange for the organization's support, candidates are not allowed to take money from large corporations.

"I don't take any corporate money and I'm not beholden to any corporation," she says. "And it is so obvious that he is."

But Hoyer says he's not taking the primary election for granted. He says it's his challenger's role to make a case for themselves. And Wilkes is doing just that.

"Steny Hoyer and I are very complete opposites," she said.

She supports Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, but her main issue seems to be criminal justice reform. Wilkes opens up about her run-ins with the law in her campaign ad posted to Twitter.

"I was even jailed for driving on a suspended license," Wilkes says in her ad. "I was seven months pregnant living paycheck to paycheck. I couldn't afford to pay all my tickets and court fees, and I had no choice but to drive or I'd lose my job."

An Uphill Battle

Wilkes not only faces low voter turnout and a strong incumbent, but also a politically polarized constituency.

Maryland's 5th District is generally rural and conservative, and whites are the plurality. The majority of voters in Calvert and St. Mary's counties' supported President Trump in 2016.

Should she make it to the November general election, Wilkes would also face stiff opposition from Republicans, some of whom have voted for Hoyer in the past.

Wilkes focuses her campaigning mainly in Democratic counties like Charles and Prince George's.

At the Waldorf Library earlier this year, Wilkes attracted at least 50 residents including 10th-grade-student Kristen Butler, who said she wanted to volunteer for Wilkes' campaign. While she's not old enough to vote yet, Butler says she started getting involved in politics after Trump was elected in 2016.

"It takes one person to rally a group of people, and that group of people can start a movement," Butler said.

Maryland's primary election will be held on June 2.

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