What do politicians do when a pandemic wipes out traditional campaign strategies of knocking on doors, shaking hands and talking face-to-face to constituents?
If you’re Karlee Provenza, you switch gears and bring potential voters to you. The Laramie candidate fires up the 12-foot-tall vehicle she calls “Martha Milktruck,” hits the streets of House District 45 and meets people she’s contacted on social media.
The gatherings are all outside, with participants wearing masks and maintaining social distance.
Provenza, a progressive Democrat, has little in common politically with another Albany County House candidate, conservative Republican Julie McCallister of Rock River. McCallister is back in the HD 47 race after three unsuccessful bids, this time facing three opponents in the GOP primary.
While knocking on doors would have been a new experience for first-time candidate Provenza, McAllister has visited more people’s homes than she can count since her first campaign in 2014. The sprawling HD 47 includes portions of Albany, Carbon and Sweetwater counties.
“Before this year I’ve primarily spent my time and money traveling door to door,” McCallister said. “Knocking on doors, walking down streets. I knocked on every single door, not just registered voters. I learned about people in my district and those who are on the other side of the aisle from me politically.”
Even before she decided to make her fourth House bid this year, McCallister knew that “normal” campaigning wouldn’t be possible this year.
“I really don’t like it. I wish I had access to testing frequently enough, and to turn the [results] around quickly enough, that I could go door to door without the constant concern of possibly transmitting this disease asymptomatically,” she said.
McCallister’s husband is disabled, and she spends a lot of time in doctors’ offices. “There’s risk involved in that,” she said. “I could never live with the possibility of spreading [coronavirus] to a voter. It could easily cost me the election, but I think it’s the ethical choice.”
Provenza made the same decision. “I can’t in good conscience go knock on the doors of people who might be immune compromised or not have access to good health care in this state,” she said.
McCallister is instead employing a combination of social media, targeted mailers, radio advertisements and word of mouth. Like her GOP opponents, she’s also participating in the internet forums set up by groups and media outlets in HD 47.
Provenza and McCallister differ in their views about calling people. The Democratic candidate and her campaign volunteers have been smiling and dialing from their phone bank. Provenza considers the calls to prospective voters an essential tool that she combines with door hangers, advertisements, Facebook and Instagram.
McCallister doesn’t make cold calls because she knows people don’t like receiving them. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to most people’s manners in Wyoming,” she said.
Both have been forced to cope with the threat of COVID-19 early due to primary races. On Aug. 18, HD 47 Republican voters will choose among incumbent Rep. Jerry Paxton of Encampment, Dee Garrison of Bairoil, Joey Corenti IV of Rawlins and McCallister.
In Laramie’s HD 45, the Democratic primary candidates are Jean Anne Garrison and Provenza. The winner of that race will face Republican Roxie Hensley, who is unopposed, in the general election.
Democratic Rep. Charles Pelkey, who chose not to seek a fourth term, has endorsed Provenza in the primary race. She is focusing her campaign messaging on her advocacy for the working class and improving access to healthcare.
“I come from a family that’s struggled with economic insecurities,” she said.
McCallister is focused on the need for “fiscal accountability in budgeting and clarity of state monies, and I mean line-item budgeting,” she said.
Legislators who hope to return to Cheyenne are also adapting to COVID-19 circumstances. Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) has two GOP primary challengers, Lyle Williams and Rex Rammell, in his bid for a second term representing SD 14.
Baldwin served two years in the House before moving to the Senate. This is the first campaign he isn’t going door to door, and he misses the interaction with voters.
Debates and town-hall meetings are further casualties of COVID-19. Virtual forums, Baldwin said, just aren’t the same, even if more people may be watching online than might appear in person at a typical debate.
“My sense is a lot of people watching are outside the [Senate] district, who may be interested in the race,” Baldwin said. To reach voters, he’s been sending out more mailers and advertising online, which are both expensive.
Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton) chose not to run for a third House term and is seeking, instead, the SD 26 vacated by Eli Bebout, who has announced his retirement. He has a primary opponent, Mike Bailey.
Salazar didn’t want his campaign to be mail-driven, and he is going door to door because he thinks it’s important for voters to be able to ask candidates questions directly. But he’s trying to be sensitive to his audience, he said.
Salazar always carries a mask, and in neighborhoods where a lot of seniors live, he’ll put one on “until I see it’s not an issue,” he said.
People have generally been receptive to his effort, he said. “I don’t think I’ve had anyone angry with me knocking on their door,” Salazar said, “but I’ve seen that look of, ‘I’ll take your literature and let’s stay at an appropriate distance if you want to talk.’”
The candidates were initially worried that the poor economy due to COVID-19 and related job losses might impact their fundraising, but they say they are managing OK even if money is tight for many people.
Baldwin has had more contributors than in past contests, he said. “I would have guessed people would have been more reluctant, but I see people willing to donate to get things moving,” he said.
Provenza said she’s grateful for all donations, no matter the amount. “The people I advocate for are struggling,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate — other than my website, everything has been paid for with donations. I don’t have money; I can’t fund my own campaign.
“If I didn’t have community support, I don’t know what I’d do,” Provenza said. “I guess I’d stand on the corner and wave a big piece of paper saying, ‘Come vote for me.’”
But not as long as she has the money to fill up Martha Milktruck’s tank.
COVID-19 hit Wyoming in March, long before the May 29 candidate filing deadline. People who chose to run for office knew this wouldn’t be a normal year and reaching voters would be extremely challenging. Campaigning is never easy, and today it requires a special combination of resourcefulness and creativity to be successful.
Candidates throughout the state are doing their best to communicate with people, even if they may not be able to talk to them in person or shake their hands. I hope Wyoming residents honor their commitment by making a special effort to become familiar with all candidates and vote in both the primary and general elections — preferably by absentee mail-in ballots, to be on the safe side.
Let’s not let all that hard work to blaze a new type of campaign trail go to waste.