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Gubernatorial campaigns alter strategies amid coronavirus pandemic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher is glad he started his gubernatorial campaign last April.

Thrasher, who is challenging Gov. Jim Justice for the Republican nomination, has visited 48 counties since launching his run for office. It is at county events and door-to-door campaign stops where laid out his plan for the state.

“There’s no substitute to looking someone in the eye and telling them who you are and why you are running and shaking their hand,” he said.

Like the other candidates for the state’s highest office, Thrasher will not be knocking on doors ahead of the May 12 primary; campaigns have suspended in-person events and shifted to remote work because of the coronavirus pandemic. Contacting voters now focuses primarily on utilizing phone banks and online resources.

Woody Thrasher

Thrasher said not being able to go to local events limits the ability to sell his message.

“If we would have gotten this campaign halfway through and then shut down, we would have not been able to meet the number of people that we had,” he said, reflecting on his run for office so far.

“Hate to lose that opportunity. We just continue with what we can.”

Thrasher has embraced telephone town halls, in which thousands of Republicans are called and allowed to ask Thrasher questions.

He also described to MetroNews the campaign’s postcard outreach; volunteers are sending notes to Republican voters asking for their support.

“We’re not going to do nothing. We just focus on those things that we’re able to continue to do,” Thrasher said.

“You’ve got to adapt to the situation. You have to show a little creativity. I think our campaign has done that.”

Activist Stephen Smith recognized changes were needed after multiple town halls.

“It was at a few of those where we started seeing people take this more seriously by not shaking hands,” he said. “At first, we didn’t know how serious it was. It was watching and listening to the people of the state and seeing they were taking more and more precautions that made us want to follow their lead.”

Smith has focused on digital outreach since launching his run for the Democratic nomination in November 2018. His campaign has utilized Facebook to engage with supporters and promote candidates of West Virginia Can’t Wait, a grassroots effort uniting people on issues such as expanding education programs and increasing the minimum wage.

Stephen Smith

“We can’t go door-to-door. We can’t do town halls,” Smith said. “What we’re doing to replace those is to essentially build a grassroots campaign from inside people’s living rooms.”

West Virginia Can’t Wait has gone beyond working to attract voters; the group launched a coronavirus web page on March 13, which includes information about the pandemic as well as resources related to testing, food delivery and voting. Smith reached out to supporters the same day about how to best address the coronavirus and its effects. The final proposal includes increasing unemployment benefits and allowing voting by mail.

Smith’s campaign is also recruiting what he calls “neighborhood captains,” people responsible for contacting neighbors about their condition without having to leave their homes.

“We are essentially turning our field operation into a coronavirus response team,” he said. “We think that’s the right thing to do and the best way to combine the message of how we need long-term government by and for the people, and how — in the short term — we can model what that looks like.”

Smith will also be leading Facebook town halls six nights a week to “give people a different vision of what our state can look like.”

“Telling the stories of people selling masks and organizing food distribution and standing up for one another in this moment,” he described.

West Virginia Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is using his Facebook page as a resource for informing the public about COVID-19. Stollings, a physician with Madison Medical Group, has held Facebook live events discussing the pandemic from a medical prespective.

“The idea is to give someone the chance to talk to a primary care physician,” campaign manager George Manahan told MetroNews.

The Stollings campaign, like others, had to change their plans because traditional campaign efforts stopped.

“It’s really difficult to ask people for money in this environment when some people have lost their jobs (and) some businesses are closing,” Manahan said. “In some cases, people who have existing money on their own and can fund their own campaigns have an advantage.”

Yet Manahan stressed Stollings’ message remains strong as questions about the coronavirus and its impact linger.

“We’re all rewriting the rules as we sort of go through it,” he added.

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango’s campaign was taking part in digital efforts and phone banking before the pandemic shut down fieldwork.

“We just want to reach voters in as many ways as possible,” Salango said. “I think digital now more than ever is key.”

Ben Salango

Salango is answering video questions through his Facebook page and website. Salango said the questions are often similar, noting issues like the coronavirus and health care.

“People send those questions in and we’re able to respond,” he said. “That answers more than just one person’s question. It really gives you an idea of our platform.”

Although with limited campaign opportunities because of the situation, Salango has numerous endorsements to his advantage. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; the state AFL-CIO chapter; and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association are among those standing by the commissioner.

“I think this election, perhaps more than others, people will look at endorsements to get more information about the candidates,” Salango said. “People will look to those organizations and those individuals for guidance on who they should vote for in the primary.”

The Salango campaign is also slated to roll out television advertisements next month.

Smith shrugged off Salango’s endorsements, pointing out his campaign has received more in individual contributions than the other gubernatorial candidates. More than half of the contributions are $20 or less.

“When you look at it that way, the number of people who have invested in what we are doing is far greater than not just anyone in this race, but anyone who has run for governor,” he said.

Former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren endorsed Smith in September. Warren, a U.S. senator representing Massachusetts, ended her campaign this month.

Incumbents rarely lose primary races, and Thrasher faces a stiffer test by running against his former boss. Justice asked Thrasher to resign as commerce secretary in June 2018 because of problems with the RISE West Virginia program.

“Before we ever undertook this, we wanted to make sure we had a reasonable chance to win,” Thrasher explained. “I just didn’t want to do this as an exercise. I wanted to do it to win.”

Thrasher’s plan for the weeks leading up to Election Day is to continue to connect with voters through telephone town halls, social media and postcards, and he said he feels confident he can win the nomination.

“We felt very strongly in the beginning we had a chance, and we knew it was an uphill battle,” he added.





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