It was always going to be complicated, having a baby while campaigning for a House seat. But Sarasota Republican Fiona McFarland didn’t comprehend what it would be like delivering a child at the dawn of a pandemic.
She checked into Sarasota Memorial Hospital for a planned induction a day after news broke of the first coronavirus case in Florida— across town at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota.
“Having my first baby is exciting and scary and unknown,” she said. “But with the backdrop of a public health crisis added to it?” It was a lot.
McFarland always knew she would do little fundraising in March, but now it feels crazy to campaign at all.
“Traditional door-knocking is unsafe. Fundraising is tone deaf with the businesses that are struggling and shutting down,” she said. “Honestly, this seems like a perfect time to step back and focus on my new baby and being a mom. I don’t need to add any noise to the conversation.”
McFarland saw some pre-crisis checks come into her campaign in March, but ultimately raised just $1,030 for the month. That brings her total to $177,508, a cash lead on her opponents.
Of course, it’s not like any campaign has been especially active in Florida House District 72. Republican Donna Barcomb, a Sarasota Charter Review Board member, raised $5,100 in cash but had originally hoped for much more in March. That brings her total to $85,140 raised.
“I was supposed to have a big fundraiser on March 26 and I had to postpone that,” Barcomb said. “I was supposed to do a candidate meet-and-greet at The Oaks on April 2 but had to cancel.”
She’s stayed active on social media, but her Facebook page is still followed mostly by existing supporters. It’s unlike any campaign season she’s seen.
“It’s gone from full bore to not that much activity, for obvious reasons,” she said.
As of April 9, Sarasota County had 201 positive cases of COVID-19, and 10 had died from the illness, according to the Department of Health.
It’s disrupted every facet of life.
Attorney Jason Miller, another Republican in the race, raised no money in March. He’s been more focused on his own family. He has a 12-year-old with whom he shares custody with his first wife, and he has a 7- and 3-year-old at home round the clock these days. His wife is also a teacher, so his household has turned into one big virtual school.
“I’ll never jokingly kid my wife about her job again,” he said.
Miller has held some Facebook events focused on the House race— he calls the series of installments “Campaigning From My Couch.” He’s discussed education, addiction and other issues that could be part of the community conversation.
He’s wondering how long the virtual campaign reality will last, looking at some estimates that peg the timeline for the pandemic as long as 18 months.
“Really, the new campaign is, I’ve interacted more online, and more directly one-on-one, and voters have been appreciative of our ability adapt,” he said. “People are hurting, and they are grateful for some leadership.”
But several of the candidates were counting on a chance to sway voters face=to-face this year.
Democrat Drake Buckman in February set the goal of shaking 25,000 voters’ hands this season. The words make him chuckle today.
“As essential as Facebook and other social media is these days, I was looking forward to meeting people individually, in the flesh,” he said.
He raised $918 in March, bringing a grand total to $40,530. That too is a number lower than he had planned. Like everyone, he’s lost ways to raise funds at in-person events and is bracing meanwhile for a higher expense reaching voters through the mail.
But he also sees a chance in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis to drive home a part of his political message. As Gov. Ron DeSantis received blistering criticism for hesitation on a stay-at-home order and failures in the state unemployment system, Buckman said voters can witness in real-time where Republican policies lead.
“There has been an ideological war among Republicans against people who are unemployed,” Buckman said.
Barcomb, unsurprisingly, has more supportive thoughts on the administration. She feels DeSantis has been making decisions that were data-driven.
“He did the right thing in letting communities make a decision,” she said. “I’m a big believer in home rule, and that the government that is most effective is the one close to people.”
The owner of Professional Physical Therapy, she expects science to drive decisions right now, she said. She feels the state government has been tracking that data well and guiding decisions appropriately.
As for McFarland, she feels now isn’t the time for those who don’t hold office to engage in political debate.
So she’s consciously staying out of the debate, self-isolating with a newborn while her mother K.T. McFarland stays in town to help with the child (fun note, when the former Deputy Homeland Security Secretary does Fox News spots over video chat, that’s McFarland’s Sarasota living room in the backdrop).
But the time for politics has been placed on hold, she said.
“Let elected leaders and public officials do their job,” she said. “We don’t need critics on the sidelines.” Her military training lets her know that while leaders making quick decisions may be imperfect, it’s important to let their leadership rule the day. The time for performance analysis comes later.