As coronavirus shut down mass gatherings, candidates adjust to a world of virtual campaigns
AZTEC — Marco Serna had planned a four-day tour of Congressional District 3 to mimic the tour he did when he announced his campaign for U.S. Congress. This four-day tour was intended to coincide with the New Mexico Secretary of State confirming that Serna will be on the Democratic Party’s primary election ballot on June 2.
Serna received that confirmation on March 24 and had hoped to be in Farmington on March 25.
But an order asking all New Mexicans to stay at home and prohibiting non-essential business meant Serna had to cancel his campaign visit to San Juan County.
As the coronavirus pandemic has created restrictions, candidates hoping to win their party's nomination for Congress are adapting to a new form of campaigning that often does not involve face-to-face interactions.
One of Serna's opponents, Teresa Leger Fernandez, said that takes away the ability to look voters in the eyes and discuss issues directly impacting them. She said that ability is a sad thing to lose because people want to see their future congressperson.
Like Serna, Leger Fernandez canceled trips to San Juan County as well as other locations within the district.
“I was looking forward to being back out in the district,” she said.
Serna agreed with Leger Fernandez that not being able to go into communities makes it harder to have those individual conversations.
"People want to meet their candidate, but luckily in this day and age we can at least meet virtually," he said.
That means scheduling virtual town halls and, Serna said, possibly a virtual debate prior to the primary election.
Candidates host virtual town halls
The coronavirus comes as campaigns would normally be intensifying leading into the primary election. The pre-primary conventions were earlier in the month and served to narrow the field of candidates.
Candidates like Serna, who did not get 20% of the delegates, either dropped out of the race or had to collect more signatures to make it onto the ballot.
But while the pre-primary convention narrowed the field, six Democratic candidates are still vying to be the party's nominee and there are three Republicans remaining in the race.
In addition to Serna and Leger Fernandez, the Democratic candidates include Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya, former Deputy Secretary of State John Blair, state Rep. Joseph Sanchez and environmental attorney Kyle Tisdel.
On the Republican side, candidates include former Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya, business owner Karen Bedonie and engineer Alexis Johnson.
Virtually all of the candidates have increased their digital presence since the pandemic reached New Mexico. Many of them have chosen to host virtual town halls.
Leger Fernandez hosted a virtual town hall on March 24 using Facebook Live where she filled out her U.S. Census and encouraged people to do the same.
All three used the opportunity to speak about the ongoing situation regarding coronavirus. In one virtual town hall, Johnson criticized the state for restricting how gun stores can sell ammo and firearms during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Tisdel talked about the federal relief package that passed this week. Blair discussed a range of topics including climate change and economic assistance for people and businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Laura Montoya said she is working to schedule a virtual town hall which will will place it on her website at LauraMontoya4NM.com and social media platforms.
In addition to her virtual town halls, Leger Fernandez announced this week that she will have regular Zoom-based virtual events known as Tea with Teresa. During these events, she will have experts discuss topics. The first one, which took place March 28, focused on health care and one of her guests was the former president of the American Medical Association Dr. Barbara McAneny.
She posts information about how to attend Tea with Teresa on her Facebook page.
“We know that community is as important as ever and connection is as important as ever,” Leger Fernandez said.
Focusing on the community needs
While many candidates have switched to a virtual campaign, some have focused on volunteer service.
These include Democratic Party candidate Laura Montoya and Republican candidate Karen Bedonie.
The pandemic led Bedonie to put her campaign on hold so she could help others.
“If I just sit in my house and make videos, what good is that?” she said.
She said she has been buying groceries and necessities like diapers for people in need. And the plumbing company she owns has been offering discounts on services. She said she has been in the trenches trying to help the community. When reached by phone on March 26, Bedonie was in the field working on fixing sewer lines.
Meanwhile, Bedonie acknowledges that the pandemic has closed some of the businesses she owns, including two flower shops. She said she is trusting President Donald Trump to lead the United States and get the country through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Laura Montoya said she has been concerned about people facing food insecurity.
“I have been focusing on how I can help my district and the most vulnerable within it,” she said.
For Montoya, that includes volunteering to package meals that the National Guard distributes to schools for youth to pick up. She said she has also been working to coordinate purchasing supplies like food for veterans and for senior citizens as well as people who have weakened immune systems. She said that will help people who are at higher risk in the community avoid going to the stores.
Laura Montoya is using her Facebook page to disseminate information about food and health services during the pandemic.
Direct contact with candidates
Meanwhile, some candidates are encouraging voters to reach out directly to them. In addition to launching a series of virtual town halls, Democratic candidate John Blair is airing ads that include his personal cell number.
"I can’t think of a more consequential time for voters to have direct conversations with candidates," Blair said in a press release. "It's critically important to stay connected in the time of social distancing. My goal is to have a conversation with voters in a personal but safe way. Besides, if lobbyists can call members of Congress directly, why can’t you?"
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e