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What It's Like To Campaign For State Legislature In A Pandemic


The coronavirus has certainly disrupted the presidential election. President Trump and Joe Biden spend millions on ads but still get plenty of news coverage, so does BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. What if you're a candidate way down on the ballot, where getting noticed by voters has gotten more difficult? NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There's a photo on Ohio State Representative Niraj Antani's Facebook page that shows a campaign intern holding up a sign that reads, 75,000 doors. That's how many front doors the candidate and his army of volunteers knocked on by late February.

NIRAJ ANTANI: Getting out there door to door, that's how you win, right? Getting out - getting your name and message out is how you win.

GONYEA: But within two weeks, the state began its shutdown. Door-knocking stopped. Antani is a Republican looking to step up to the state Senate in a district President Trump carried by 20 points. So many basics of down-ballot campaigning are now no longer available - church breakfasts, festivals, the county fair, no more weekly luncheons for the local service organizations. Niraj Antani says it's a long list.

ANTANI: I used to be, you know, one of the busiest guys in Ohio. And now my calendar's clear and all I do are phone calls.

GONYEA: Antani, a first-generation Indian American who represents suburban Dayton, says with all these tried-and-true techniques on hold, you do what you can to find substitutes.

ANTANI: You know, that will have to be substituted for, you know, TV ads, for mailers, for, you know, radio ads, which all cost money. And so, you know, the cessation of face-to-face campaigning, you know, makes a campaign more expensive, not less.

GONYEA: And he says fundraising has gotten a lot tougher as well. It's just hard to ask people for money given the state of the economy.

Now to Arizona and another state lawmaker, Representative Lorenzo Sierra, who's running for reelection in a district that extends from southwest Phoenix to its suburbs.

LORENZO SIERRA: If there's a hand, I'll shake it. If there is a baby, I will kiss it. And right now, we just don't have those opportunities to do that.

GONYEA: This is a solidly Democratic district with a large Hispanic population. Here Sierra is on a Zoom call with volunteers.

SIERRA: And I think everyone else here on the call is bilingual, which is absolutely amazing.

GONYEA: The call is to teach them how to join a virtual phone bank from home.

SIERRA: So we have a technology that we use which allows...

GONYEA: Sierra is on these calls a lot, doing fundraising or speaking to local groups. He also decided that social media is now so important that he needed to improve the quality of his ads - another unexpected cost.

Then there are the issues. The ones that have dominated nationally - the pandemic and Black Lives Matter and the protests - have become the topics his constituents want to talk about as well. Local issues have been pushed aside, at least for now. He says in every forum, COVID-19 is the No. 1 topic. This is one of the volunteers on that Zoom session this week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My question is what about people that are having trouble getting face masks? Is there any kind of information out there that we can, you know, direct to people?

GONYEA: Sierra tells her people can go to his website for mask resources. Arizona is one of those states currently seeing a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases.

Sierra is also worried about the pandemic's potential to hurt voter turnout. For the upcoming August primary, there will be fewer but larger voting places across the state. It'll likely be the same for the general election. He says the campaign is working to educate people about new places to vote and about getting mail-in ballots. He notes that Arizona is now on the list of battleground states in the presidential race, so the stakes couldn't be higher.

SIERRA: If our part of town comes out significantly and votes the way we think we are, we are the margin of victory for Joe Biden.

GONYEA: And he hopes for other Democrats on the ticket, but in a year where so far, very little has gone according to anyone's plans.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.