A global pandemic upended politics across the country. That includes Florida’s 19th Congressional District, where a field of a dozen candidates remains confined to homes and offices.
And so, in what should be one of the most active political territories in Florida, there’s nothing happening on the ground.
Except that two candidates have jumped in the race and one has dropped out. And a candidate reported raising a third of a million dollars before a pandemic struck, and another raised half a million at the peak of calamity.
One candidate with less luck in fundraising started a statewide effort to reduce qualification fees or get rid of them altogether.
A number of elected officials weighed in on controversial stay-at-home orders, and one ended up quitting a job so he could run for this congressional seat.
And one candidate actually tested positive for COVID-19.
So actually, there have been few things going on.
Launching during a pandemic
In a state of being where no one can shake hands, kiss babies or even hold a kick-off event, it’s a heck of a time to announce a run for Congress.
But in fact, two candidates decided just in March to throw their hat the ring for the open South Florida seat. Ave Maria University law graduate Christy McLaughlin, who will barely be old enough to serve in Congress should she win, announced in early March she was running for the seat.
Not long after, Naples fast food mogul Casey Askar announced he too wants the job. He jumped in days after frequent Fox News pundit Ford O’Connell dropped out, and he ended up absorbing some of O’Connell’s key staff.
The addition of two more Republicans means nine GOP candidates have accounts active with the Federal Election Commission, and all have intentions to qualify for the ballot. That includes state Reps. Dane Eagle, Heather Fitzenhagen and Byron Donalds, Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, former Minnesota lawmaker Dan Severson, Naples physician William Figlesthaler and disabled advocate Darren Aquino.
Meanwhile, financial adviser David Holden and Florida Gulf Coast University professor Cindy Banyai continue to seek the Democratic nomination. Independent Antonio Dumornay has filed for November to face whoever emerges in the primaries.
The deadline to report third quarter fundraising remains about a week away, but Donalds already revealed he raised upward of $335,000 since filing in January. “I am humbled by the outpouring of support,” he said.
Askar quickly upped the ante, announcing $500,000 raised, about half from small donors, in the 11 days before the quarter closed. “However, I want the people of Southwest Florida to know I am thinking and praying for them during this pandemic,” he said in a release.
But a lot of candidates have quietly suggested now’s not the easiest time for fundraising.
Certainly, traditional fundraisers can’t happen. An executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis shuts down all restaurants for anything but take-out, and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourage gatherings of 10 or more. Since DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, it makes campaign events all but impossible.
Figlesthaler said he has canceled six fundraisers since the start of the election. He notably ended 2019 with a cash lead thanks to a $410,000 loan he put in coffers on top of more than $126,000 in donations.
Eagle, who closed 2019 with $422,000 in donations, said he has also canceled all fundraising as of the end of March. “It’s just a different world,” he said.
Fitzenhagen said there’s no reason to look for a big number from her this quarter, between the Legislative Session and the pandemic. The Henderson campaign is still communicating with donors but has retired hard sells, knowing even major funders face business concerns and a potential loss in wealth from a market crash.
“You can’t rely on in-person events to fundraise,” said Chasen Bullock, Henderson’s campaign manager. “You have to be more creative and do things differently. The dollars you raise today become much more valuable.”
But the costs of running a campaign haven’t simply disappeared.
For the record, nearly all campaigns plan to qualify by paying a $10,440 qualifying fee. Figlesthaler’s campaign turned in 6,000 petitions but hasn’t heard back yet as to whether elections officials verified them all. Without the pandemic, its likely more cards would have been collected, but he may yet have to pay the fee.
Banyai, though, has put most of her public political efforts into lobbying the state to waive or reduce the qualification requirements based on the pandemic. In an online press call this week, she and Michael Bluemling, a Republican running for a different congressional seat, called on DeSantis to give an extra 45 days for petition gathering.
“Everyday we talk about how to do it, that’s another day we are behind,” she said.
Outreach amid self-isolation
As social distancing guidelines kicked into effect in March, Figlesthaler announced a major shift in messaging during a press conference outside a Fort Myers medical office. He would put aside the quirky ads walking through a hospital hall casually tossing his lab coat while calling Washington “sick” and instead set up a hotline and website focused on community education for staying well. Precinct volunteers were directed to take calls and offer information on COVID-19.
“My team and I are solely focused on operating our COVID-19 resource center,” Figlesthaler said, “In the last three weeks, we have fielded hundreds of incoming calls and preformed thousands of wellness checks. My primary focus is ensuring that our team is helping out anyone who needs assistance.”
He has issued fundraising appeals online and on TV. Some opponents criticized an ad he has up which, while alluding to the coronavirus spread, primarily discusses fighting Democrats and Republicans in Washington on health care policy. Aquino called it particularly offensive that the ad featured an image of late Sen. John McCain with headlines from a vote against repealing ObamaCare provisions.
Figlesthaler dismissed the concern.
“We have several spots in rotation,” he said. “I have spent more money on our COVID-19 response than most campaigns have raised total.”
Of course, it has not been easy for any campaign to reach voters self-isolated in the homes and forbidden from attending forums or other public gatherings.
Eagle dipped into his campaign account to fund telephonic Town Hall meetings, stressing his current job as Florida House Republican Leader but addressing concerns from throughout the district.
“We are still working away at it, using every resource we can to communicate to voters,” Eagle said. “Some issues have taken a backseat.”
At least with the town hall, he was able to speak to voters about the outbreak, address certain pieces of misinformation finding their way online and reinforcing messaging from the White House and the Governor’s Mansion regarding the pandemic.
One advantage with a virtual town hall has been attendance. A phone-in event held by Eagle’s campaign in March attracted 1,300 callers. That’s certainly more than attend a typical gathering at a City Commission chamber.
Holden had similar experiences with two tele-town halls, ones again focused on how elected officials should address the COVID-19 outbreak. The first had 1,000 listeners call in, the second had 700.
“I’ve never gotten 700 people to show for a live event before,” said Holden, he was also the Democratic nominee against incumbent Rep. Francis Rooney in 2018.
The Democrat now has been running a campaign through Zoom meetings and turned to the phone to reach constituents.
“We’ve had a robust digital campaign,” Holden said. He can’t help but wonder if the entire pandemic, particularly criticism of DeSantis’ and President Donald Trump’s slow response, will eventually make for a better climate for Democrats in November in this deep red district.
“If we can’t have a deeper conversation now, I don’t know when it will happen,” he said.
Severson said he feels generally good about his campaign’s position.
“We have a quality team that is handling fundraising and social media,” he said.
“We are doing a good job getting our messaging out via social media and we’ve had a few interviews the last few weeks. We will also be doing some virtual town halls very soon. We look forward to when everything gets back to normal, and I continue to pray for our community, our nation, and our President.”
Meanwhile, McLaughlin has sought out whole new digital platforms not normally known for political hookups.
“I have started to campaign on Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and SnapChat,” she said.
It may not be exactly what people are looking for when they swipe right, but it certainly brings new meaning to finding voters where they are right now.
Engaging the lockdown debate
Candidates are also involving themselves in the public discussions that matter to constituents the most right now— the ones involving response to the pandemic.
At a Collier County Commission meeting in March, both Donalds and Dumornay made their way to testify about a proposed stay-at-home order.
DuMornay stressed the need for any pandemic response to include poor and minority communities in the region. Donalds, while quick to express empathy with officials about difficult decisions right now, came to question the legality of a local order.
Both were opposed to the commission taking any action, and the board ultimately chose not to put a local order into effect.
“Such an order should come from the Governor,” Donalds argued. And days later, DeSantis in fact issued such an order that put consistent restrictions in place statewide.
Fitzenhagen, meanwhile, argued multiple times before that point that Lee County needed to put a local directive in place. Henderson joined in her in that call for action, though Lee officials also took no action before the Governor made his move.
For Fitzenhagen, showing up and weighing in had as much to do with her current job as state Representative, just the same as engagement with the Department of Economic Opportunity over issues with a broken benefits website.
“I’m just advocating for certain things for people, trying to resolve problems,” she said.
It’s much the same reason she raised money for Immokalee farmers to have sanitation supplies.
Henderson has worked to show steady leadership at City Hall, even as the state’s resign to run law required him to put in notice this week that he will end his Mayoral term early regardless of the election outcome.
There’s a truism in politics that the best way to do well with voters is to do good at existing public duties. So office-holders in particular have worked to address constituent needs as the health and financial demands of the pandemic grow.
But even candidates for Congress are not immune to the threat of COVID-19.
Campaigning in quarantine
While not the most high-profile campaign, Aquino has certainly suffered the greatest challenge from the coronavirus spread. He disclosed earlier this month that he tested positive for COVID-19.
From quarantine inside his apartment, he has continued work as CEO of Advocates for Disabled Americans, Veterans, Police, Firemen & Families. But Aquino said it has been a physical ordeal, and he shares texts from medical experts he knows working in the military.
Those professional connections advised him of successful treatments utilized in Germany. He has used the hydroxychlorine treatment advocated by DeSantis and Trump, but he has also been advised with the pulmonary progression he faced to move on to intravenous infusion of Actemra and Kevzara. He’s happy for the advice. “I’m very fortunate,” he said. “Not everyone is so blessed.”
His situation certainly highlights the inherent risks of campaigning amid a public health crisis. That’s on candidates’ minds as well.
As many forums get canceled, Donalds issued a call this week for local media to host candidate debates, though notably made no demand for a live audience.
Eagle, for his part, said he would not attend a public forum or candidate gathering right now, afraid if nothing else that it would set a bad example and encourage people to gather in groups despite CDC guidelines.
In addition to having an open congressional seat, Florida’s 19th District has in it a number of constituents over the age of 65, more than a third of the population. And the coronavirus has reared its head here. Lee County as of Wednesday evening had 476 individuals tested positive for COVID-19, and Collier County had another 282, according to the Department of Health. A total of 17 have died from the disease in the two counties combined.
So a health crisis has largely shuttered society in an area where local officials were fairly resistant to a stay-at-home order. The infection continues to spread and restrictions on behavior persist. Society has come to a near stop.
Except for the tele-town halls. The digital outreach. The business of government. The raising of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The launch of multiple campaigns. And the round-the-clock testing of area residents including candidates themselves.
But other than that, nothing is going on.