In-person contact is usually the essence of politics on Whidbey Island, with capably run, well attended candidate forums, and church basement breakfasts featuring lively dialogue and congealed eggs.
Not so in 2020, although the 10th Legislative District has split representation, an open House seat, and a State Senate race featuring a candidate – Democrat Helen Price Johnson – who used to stage brisk League of Women Voters forums.
It’s so across the Evergreen State, save for close quarters, largely mask-less events for Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, State Representative Jim Walsh, and Top Two election loser Tim Eyman.
Back in the spring, Eyman invited Island County Republicans to defy Governor Jay Inslee’s first order limiting crowd size. Few showed up.
What are candidates and campaigns doing?
“Lots of Zoom and candidates are placing a huge number of calls themselves,” messaged State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the House Republican leader.
The novel coroanvirus pandemic has taken away a nearby pleasure of grassroots democracy – the opportunity to meet and jawbone with neighbors and visitors who are on the campaign trail – but extended the reach of political activism.
“I think it has hurt local involvement, but has made it easier to get involved in swing states,” said Democratic activist and party leader Derek Richards, who chairs the Young Democrats of Washington (YDWA).
“For example, I do love to go to forums in person and get a feel of how an audience reacts and how candidates then react to constituents. And I miss knocking doors. But because COVID-19 has forced campaigns to be completely online, it makes it just as easy for me to phone bank or text bank people in Maine as it would be for me to bus to a swing district and knock doors for a candidate. So, as a volunteer for campaigns it is easier.”
“As a lover of in-person events, it isn’t so great.”
Senator Susan Collins, R‑Maine, should be very concerned that Derek Richards is reaching Down East to oppose her. At the same time, however, 10th District Republican candidate Bill Bruch – challenging State Rep. Dave Paul – has to face far fewer questions over his coronavirus skepticism and his support for the Navy’s Growler jets, whose noise is shattering the peaceful life of Coupeville.
The 19th District in Southwest Washington is home to a human generator of noise, Eyman wingman Jim Walsh, as well as two endangered Democrats, State Representative Brian Blake and State Senator Dean Takko.
Blake trailed Republican challenger Joel McEntire by 3,000-plus votes in the primary. He is spending less time hunting elk, and hunting votes back at the doorstep. “Zoom has allowed debates to happen and we have doorbelled the district after the [Top Two election],” said Blake.
He is running as “A Different Kind of Democrat,” an important distinction to make in person given the noisy Seattle bashing of district Republicans.
Teresa Purcell, a Longview-based consultant to campaigns around the country, has long fought to have the Democratic Party court young people, working moms and other folk underrepresented in the voting public.
The pandemic has uprooted campaigns.
“This has totally changed campaigning: Creative folks are having Zoom happy hours, listening sessions or just pain meet and greets,” Purcell messaged.
“I don’t know of anyone having events (except a few Republicans, like Culp and Jim Walsh). Folks are doing lots of phone calling, socially distanced canvassing (just some campaigns are doing that) and making good use of social media.”
“This is the weirdest election cycle ever.”
Pandemic politics have produced one revealing virtual debate.
In the 3rd Congressional District, Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler has long resisted in-person politics, steering away from town meetings and minimizing exposure for her opponents. She did accede to a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate last week with her Democratic opponent Carolyn Long.
The debate allowed Long to hammer at Herrera Beutler’s role as a rubber stamp for Donald Trump, and to hit the incumbent for a failure to produce on replacing the Interstate 5 bridge linking Vancouver with Portland.
Herrera Beutler countered that she is working bridges, citing $5 million to pay for work leading to replacement of the White Salmon-Hood River Bridge.
It was a spirited hour, although it’s not likely that Herrera Beutler will be lured into another virtual face-off with the fast talking Long.
The pandemic has put a crimp on Long, who in 2018 used a series of town meetings in a bid to reconnect rural Southwest Washington with the Democratic Party. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee is not popular in the region and is not frequently seen in such places as Cowlitz and Grays Harbor counties.
On Whidbey Island, I know I can expect 10th District candidate mailings to pour out of my post office box. They will be signed (in very small print) by campaigns, labor unions, and parties’ front groups. I’m lucky enough to have witnessed work as Island County Commissioners by Helen Price Johnson and Democratic House nominee Angie Homola. Longtime Representative Norma Smith isn’t running again: She made me a ticket splitter with strong support for net neutrality, and cosponsored bipartisan legislation allowing the Attorney General to crack down on neglected, polluting boats. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has done just that.
Still, I’ll miss forums.
They could be revealing, such as watching Republican State Senator Barbara Bailey’s abrupt, rude treatment of critical but politely posed questions at a 2016 LWV forum in Oak Harbor. Down in Langley, the League’s candidate nights could hold an audience for two hours. The parking lot arguments typically went on for another thirty minutes after that. Inside the Methodist Church hall, Island County Democratic Chair “Uncle Paul” Fournier and longtime Republican leader Dorothy Cleveland would be taking up and folding chairs.
Sure, Fournier and Cleveland were on opposite sides of hotly contested races. After the election, however, they would come together to pass the local school levy – over grumbling from a group of local conservative called the Old Goats – and to support programs to keep troubled teenagers from going to seed.
Before all politics was Trump, all politics was local. In some ways, it still is.