CORONAVIRUS

Iowa congressional candidates inch toward returning to the trail

Campaigns cope with 'grand daddy' of adjusting tactics

State Rep. Art Staed speaks Wednesday about the status of events that occurred in the most recent session of the Iowa Ho
State Rep. Art Staed speaks Wednesday about the status of events that occurred in the most recent session of the Iowa House during a meeting of the Linn County Democrats Central Committee at Guthridge Park in Hiawatha. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After months of virtual town halls, roundtables and campaign events, Iowa congressional candidates are inching their way back to old-fashioned, in-person campaigning.

The novelty of Facebook Live and Zoom meetings has worn off and candidates and voters alike want to meet face-to-face, campaign staffers say.

“I think everyone is chomping at the bit to get back out on the campaign trail,” said Jimmy Peacock, campaign manager for Republican U.S. House candidate Ashley Hinson, who is looking at in-person events after the Fourth of July barring a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

The transition from tele-town halls and other forms of virtual events, however, likely will go slowly. It’s not just a matter of candidates being ready to meet the voters, but voters being ready to get within 6 feet of the candidates.

“I miss it,” Adam Wright of Cedar Rapids said about in-person campaign events while dropping off materials at an in-person meeting of the Linn County Democratic Party Central Committee. Participants were spread out under and around a shelter in Hiawatha’s Guthridge Park. One had a 6-foot pole for social distancing.

But Wright didn’t stay for the meeting — explaining that until the number of COVID-19 cases drops he won’t feel comfortable at in-person events.

“I’m not ready yet, ready to be the canary in the mine,” he said.

About 15 people were physically present for the meeting while others participated via a Zoom connection.

It was JoAnne Beer’s first in-person political meeting in months.

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“I’m proceeding carefully. I knew it would be handled properly,” the Fairfax Democrat said. In addition to being spaced out, participants wore masks and hand sanitizer was available.

Six feet away, Bernard Clayton of Cedar Rapids said he’s willing to go to in-person events “but you have to be careful.”

He’s attended Black Lives Matter rallies, but wears a mask and tries to stay on the perimeter of the crowd. “But even outside you’re not absolutely safe,” he noted.

Campaign staffers agree the playing field has changed because of COVID-19. Campaign events likely will be outdoors and with limited numbers of attendees.

Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer — Hinson’s opponent — is as excited as the next candidate to once again meet voters face-to-face, spokesman Jason Noble said.

When that happens will be determined “by hard data on coronavirus cases and the advice of our public health experts,” Noble said.

However, there are signs that in-person campaigning will return. In her “official” capacity as a congresswoman, Finkenauer made an in-person visit June 22 to various locations in western Dubuque County to look at infrastructure projects. She met with masked local officials in a parking lot before individuals got into their own vehicles for the driving tour, Noble said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst “is thrilled to be able to safely continue her 99-county tour,” campaign spokesman Brendan Conley said. Like other candidates, Ernst is taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but “looks forward to more events to come soon.”

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Her challenger, Democrat Theresa Greenfield, would like to be “out shaking hands in person, but right now our priority is campaigning virtually to do our part to protect public health and following the advice of the experts who stress that the coronavirus pandemic still is very much a threat,” said spokeswoman Izzi Levy.

The Linn County Democratic Phoenix Club is planning to host Greenfield sometime in July for a Zoom meeting, but may consider an outdoors event, organizers said.

Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is running for the U.S. House 2nd District seat, has attended some in-person county central committee meetings and the opening of the Scott County Republican campaign headquarters, spokesman Eric Woolson said.

“It’s logical and prudent to start with small events,” Woolson said.

The Progressive Turnout Project, a national field organization, planned to send canvassers door-knocking in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and Sioux City as part of a get-out-the-vote effort that started over the weekend.

But most campaigns are in a holding pattern. Even as they continue to rely on virtual events and phone calls to get their messages out, they are making plans for live events. Campaign staffers say the decision to return to the field will depend in part on what other candidates do. They’re waiting for someone else to go first, one staffer said.

“People are looking forward to getting together with the candidates,” Woolson said. “They want to see things return to normal, but also understand that it’s important to tamp this down. To be cautious.”

Small, backyard events and campaign roundtables where people can be appropriately spaced are mentioned as possible opportunities.

COVID-19 has forced campaigns to “adapt and improvise,” Levy said, adding that with recent polls showing Greenfield leading in the Senate race “it’s pretty clear that Theresa’s virtual campaigning is working.”

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Campaigns have to make adjustments every election cycle, Woolson said. Sometimes it’s issues. Other times its fundraising or the oppositions’ tactics.

“Coronavirus is the grand daddy of all adjustments,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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