The early morning sun glistens off the overnight dew still clinging to grass as Republican Senate candidate Robert Short strolls into a coffee shop wearing a face mask. After greeting patrons, Short is approached by the shop owner, who fastens his own mask. After a few minutes of muffled discussion and jokes between the two masked men, Short exits and grabs a campaign sign from his truck.
He leans over the damp grass on his toes, careful not to get his pants wet, and wiggles the sign into the ground.
“At least putting up signs hasn’t been affected by COVID,” he mumbles under his mask.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began here in February and March – the same time many political campaigns were gearing up – many candidates running for U.S. Senate have had to adjust their campaigns to adhere to public health restrictions. Not only have they had to restrict their public appearances, they have had less success raising the money necessary to compete on a statewide basis.
Thus, the pandemic has caused a serious blow to many of their campaign plans and their ability to get their names in front of voters. With 10 Republican and six Democrat candidates running, name recognition will play a vital – if not all important – role, giving Republican candidate and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis a big head start in an election season severely shortened by the pandemic.
“Running against a career politician with good name recognition like Cynthia Lummis was an uphill battle to begin with,” said Republican candidate Mark Armstrong of Centennial. “But the COVID-19 has increased the difficulty.”
Short, while not naming Lummis specifically, said, “People may just check a box based on a name rather than substance. Honestly, that’s how we end up with career politicians.
“It certainly had a profoundly negative impact on our ability to engage with any kind of large numbers of people,” Short admitted, adding he’s found it difficult to spread his message when limited to one-on-one situations or virtually on social media.
“It’s a bit like the telephone game we played in kindergarten,” he joked, his trademark dry wit coming through. “What starts out as the monkey loves gloves turns into the tire has cars. The message becomes so different.”
Democrat Nathan Wendt of Jackson, whose campaign was started during the most restrictive time in Wyoming, commented it has made in-person campaigning more uncertain and less frequent.
“Door-to-door campaigning isn’t happening,” he said.
“It’s a balancing act of trying to be respectful to folks,” Short said, “and having the opportunity to converse with people and find out what’s on their minds.”
Many of the candidates, like Wendt and Short, have had to switch to digital methods in an attempt to reach out.
“Having interactions with voters has largely gone digital via phone and via media outlets,” Wendt said – a common refrain heard from the candidates who responded to the Budget’s request for an interview on this topic. (Eight of the 16 candidates or their campaign responded in some fashion, although some didn’t provide on-the-record comments.)
Yet, Democrat Yana Ludwig of Laramie commented that campaigning online has had its benefits.
“In some ways, it has been easier since so many people are online so much more,” she said.
Ludwig explained she has a robust collection of campaign videos on Facebook and Youtube, and they’ve got more attention than they may have otherwise.
“Social media has been the currently employed method for trying to reach out to people,” Short agreed, “and of course utilizing print and air time to point people to social media.”
Short also explained that when he does travel, he takes along a digital sign displaying information about him and the community.
Lummis, who lives in Cheyenne, is also switching up her communication methods, according to her campaign manager Kristin Walker.
“When possible, Cynthia has been connecting with folks through phone or video chats. We’ve also rescheduled many events for later this summer,” Walker noted.
Like Lummis, social distancing has forced many of the candidates to cancel or postpone events.
“Typically, what will happen this time of year is rodeos, parades, dinners,” Short said. “Many have been canceled or postponed until after the primary election. This has certainly changed the dynamic.”
Despite that, Short recently attended rodeos in Greybull and Hulett, so he has some hope that more events will return before the August primary.
But in-person appearances at events isn’t the only problem plaguing some of the newcomers’ campaigns.
On top of the name recognition advantage, Lummis, who is reportedly worth in the high tens of millions of dollars, has a net worth far eclipsing most, if not all, of her opponents. Fund raising for the expensive statewide political campaigns is difficult enough in a normal year, but the lack of one-on-one efforts and larger fund raising events has served to hamstring even the more ardent campaigns.
Ludwig mentioned that her campaign has had to cancel fund raisers and other events that would have gotten her to the north and west side of the state.
“The uncertainty in the nation right now is palpable, Short said. “For folks, the uncertainty is making people reluctant to let go of any cash.
“It’s not that they don’t support me, but the uncertainty. There are very few people supporting me (monetarily). People can’t afford to spend money outside of necessity.”
Several candidates had different views on when traditional campaigning may be on the table.
“If I had to guess, I’d say we won’t likely return to ‘normal’ campaigning in this cycle,” Ludwig remarked.
“I’d love to say it’s headed toward normal,” Short said, “(but) obviously there are some unknown unknowns. We know outdoors (COVID-19) is very difficult to transmit. That’s awesome.”