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Candidates face campaign obstacles due to pandemic

WV MetroNews

WV MetroNews – Alex Thomas – 6.3.2020

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Dr. Matt Hahn’s initial plan for his congressional run involved literal running.


Describing himself as “one of the greatest slow runners ever,” Hahn wanted to run door to door throughout the 2nd Congressional District in hopes of persuading people to support him in the Republican primary.


“I’ve been all through the Eastern Panhandle and had been to Charleston a couple of times, and was knocking on doors and talking to lots and lots of people,” the family physician said. “It was a great strategy, and it was actually a lot of fun.”


Hahn’s gameplan for challenging incumbent Rep. Alex Mooney was in place until March 11; amid the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Hahn was still going through with his “Running to Save Your Life” strategy, although with minor changes such as elbow bumps rather than handshakes.


He arrived home following an evening of campaigning and decided to relax by watching basketball.


“About 10 minutes into that game, they broadcasted the NBA was suspending the season,” he said. “That was the moment that it really hit home for everybody that things were going to have to change dramatically, and they did.”


Hahn, like many candidates across the country, is facing unusual circumstances because of the coronavirus; candidates cannot take part in public appearances or knock on doors as voters stay inside to prevent contracting the virus.


“There’s no opportunity to do that. Honestly, people would freak out if you went and knocked on their doors right now,” said Mooney, who is seeking his fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. “It has really curtailed the retail politicking that would be occurring.”


Mooney said he is in a decent position to win despite the limited campaigning opportunities, noting his first campaign for the 2nd District began in 2013.


“I’m in year seven at this point. Most voters have a good idea what I stand for,” he said.

Mooney added: “There’s always swing voters you want to try to contact. There’s always additional questions people have. You can always meet more people. But I do essentially have a six-year advantage from being an incumbent and running for the same position I currently hold.”


Christopher Mann, a political science professor at Skidmore College, said candidates without financial support are at a disadvantage in normal election cycles, and the gap has widened because of the pandemic.


“Of course, incumbents always have an easier time raising money than challengers,” he said. “They can raise the money and pay for advertising on social media, radio, television, other ways they can still get their name out, get their message out.”


Mooney’s campaign reported nearly $1.9 million in cash on hand in its April quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, compared to Hahn’s committee with $3,188.92.


“For challengers who are a little more cash-strapped, cutting off of those ways to campaigning that don’t involve money but involve time, those tilt in their favor,” Mann said. “That’s a big challenge.”


Mooney told MetroNews he is calling voters and focusing on outreach in swing counties. He is additionally continuing a multi-stage bicycle ride through the 2nd District, providing him with some chances to speak to constituents as the state continues reopening. During a recent trip through Lewis and Braxton counties, one issue Mooney noticed at the top of voters’ minds: the coronavirus.


“It’s pretty much the only issue,” he mentioned.


After the statewide stay-at-home order was enacted, Hahn’s top priorities were treating patients and helping organize the local coronavirus response. He has implemented new rules at his practice, including wearing personal protective safety equipment.


“We had to figure all of that out on the fly. There was no guidance for a practice like mine,” he said.


Hahn utilized his campaign Facebook page to provide updates about the pandemic — called the “Corona Chronicles” — before restarting his voter outreach efforts in April.


“We have ads in the paper and lots of posting on Facebook, but nothing more than that at the moment,” he said.


Sam Petsonk and state Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, also had to change their campaigns for the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office.


Sponaugle, who began serving in the House of Delegates in 2013, said he is using his available time to call voters and utilize digital outreach. He added he plans to focus much of his efforts and resources in the final days before June 9.


“I have over a decade of experiences running campaigns,” he said. “I know what’s effective. I know what not to waste my time on what I shouldn’t be doing, and at the end of the day on a statewide race, a lot of it is going to be based on fundraising so you can advertise in the end.”


Petsonk, a first-time candidate, has focused on sign placement and information distribution. He is also working to capture voters’ attention with his legal experience; his current attorney work focuses on health care and labor issues, and Petsonk previously worked as a legislative assistant to Sens. Robert Byrd and Carte Goodwin.


“The coronavirus has really increased the public attention’s on occupational health and safety hazards, which are the thrust of my law practice,” he said. “People have come to me, both clients and reporters, asking for guidance and representation during the coronavirus.”


Sponaugle has more money remaining on hand compared to Petsonk — $127,596.02 to $46,464.28 — but Petsonk has pointed out another figure: individual contributions. The Petsonk campaign has received $137,034.39 in contributions compared to $48,355 for Sponaugle.


Sponaugle’s benefit in a general election contest against incumbent Patrick Morrisey could be his political experience, having won contests in 2012 and 2016 as the House of Delegates’ 55th District went for Republican presidential candidates.


“I may have some different ideas on things policywise that may not correlate with Donald Trump, but it’s nothing to come over to my area and see a Donald Trump sign and an Isaac Sponaugle sign side-by-side,” he said. “It’s just as much as the person and the individual and whether they believe you are actually going to be fighting for them.”


Mann said another challenge each candidate will have to face is absentee ballots; according to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, 259,624 West Virginians have requested an absentee ballot as voters can use the coronavirus as an excuse to receive a ballot.


“My belief and my reading of the research is that the real advantage goes to the campaign that is savvier about figuring out how to run their campaign in this new environment,” he said. “Rather than everybody voting on Election Day, people are going to make their decisions different times. That means communicating on a different timeline.”


Mann added incumbents could have a greater chance to win because of better resources and funding, but that is not a guarantee.


“If they run their campaign like they did in 2016 and 2018 and expect it to work when the voting landscape has changed, it could be a real disadvantage to them,” he noted. “A really savvy challenger could really get a leg up.”


The Hahn campaign has utilized some of the remaining time for a unique effort; he and Democratic candidate Cathy Kunkel participated in a foot race last Saturday benefitting the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Eastern Panhandle. Kunkel does not have an opponent in her primary for the 2nd Congressional District.


“Rather than bash one another which is the traditional campaign-style in this county, Cathy and I decided to work together to try to solve an issue,” Hahn said.


Yet Hahn recognizes the limited campaign opportunities due to the pandemic. He said he “doesn’t have any clue” how he will perform in the primary because of the few chances for outreach.


“It’s been very difficult,” he said. “It clearly upended my campaign, and I hope it didn’t damage it too much. If it does, there’s always two years from now.”