Coronavirus Poses New Challenges To Down-Ballot Political Campaigns When Americans are "social distancing," how do candidates campaign? "You can't ethically go out to shopping malls, or knock on people's doors," said one candidate.
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'You Can't Put The Public In Danger': How The Coronavirus Has Changed Campaigning

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'You Can't Put The Public In Danger': How The Coronavirus Has Changed Campaigning

'You Can't Put The Public In Danger': How The Coronavirus Has Changed Campaigning

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

OK. Remember how the campaign was the big story? Ah, good times, good times. Not only has the coronavirus diverted attention from November's elections. It's also changed the campaigns and not just Joe Biden's, Bernie Sanders's and Donald Trump's. Thousands of candidates are running for office this year. And as NPR's Juana Summers reports, those down-ballot candidates are really feeling the effects of the coronavirus.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Brianna Wu is looking for an upset. The software engineer is hoping to challenge Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch in Massachusetts for a second time. But before that, she has to get her name on the ballot for September's primary. That requires collecting 2,000 signatures, which is impossible right now.

BRIANNA WU: You can't ethically go out to shopping malls and knock on people's doors or Democratic townhalls. You can't put the public in danger by doing that.

SUMMERS: Wu and others wrote a letter to Massachusetts political leaders asking to delay the deadline to submit signatures by one month. Right now, it's too dangerous for candidates to ask volunteers to knock on doors. They've canceled fundraisers and sent their staffs home. They're also figuring out how to run in an environment where many voters are more focused on their personal well-being than any upcoming election.

And then there's the money. Competitive campaigns can be expensive. And without money, they dry up. But some people simply can't afford to chip in.

WU: I had three different people just yesterday that had pledged to donate to my campaign. And then we got in touch with them. And they're like, I just lost my job.

SUMMERS: Democrat Nancy Goroff is running to challenge Republican Representative Lee Zeldin in New York. Last week, the chemistry professor scrapped all of her in-person events and sent her staff home.

NANCY GOROFF: We switched from knocking on doors to calling and texting people because we did not want to be contributing to spreading the virus in any way.

SUMMERS: Goroff's primary is on June 23 - so still months away. But she says she's already thinking about what that could look like.

GOROFF: We want to make sure, first and foremost, that people are able to vote and able to do so in safety and not have to worry about exposing themselves to infection by voting.

SUMMERS: She hopes that, if things haven't changed by June, there will be easier access to absentee ballots.

Earlier this week, Illinois State Senator Jim Oberweis won a crowded Republican primary to face Democratic Representative Lauren Underwood in November. Underwood flipped this traditionally red seat in a suburban Illinois district outside of Chicago in 2018. This year, it's one of Republicans' top targets. Oberweis says he's not thinking much about that right now.

JIM OBERWEIS: We're not really focusing right now on trying to win the election in November. We're focusing on, how do we help people stay safe?

SUMMERS: Oberweis says he's been calling the folks that helped him win his primary to thank them and posting what feels like an endless stream of resources on social media.

OBERWEIS: It will be a virtual campaign where we're talking to some people. And we will be doing some tele-townhalls. But even the tele-townhalls are going to be focused on, how do we help people?

SUMMERS: The impact has also been personal. When we spoke yesterday, Oberweis talked to me about his daughter, who lives halfway across the country in California with her family. They've been keeping in touch over FaceTime. He told me that she and her family are experiencing some mild symptoms that could be coronavirus. But so far at least, like many Americans, they haven't been able to get tested. Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "PRICELESS")

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