During the final leg of the 5th Congressional District primary season, candidates are forced to find new ways to get their message out to the public.
Despite the issuance of a shelter-at-home order lasting through June 10, Virginia has not delayed its primary date, June 9, and is unlikely to, thanks to a deadline set by the Democratic National Committee, which is creating some complications for candidates.
The crowded Democratic field in the 5th District has narrowed from five to four after Shadi Ayyas, a doctor, announced on March 30 that he was suspending his campaign in order to help combat the coronavirus.
Now, the remaining candidates — R.D. Huffstetler, John Lesinski, Claire Russo and Dr. Cameron Webb — have been working to find new ways to connect with voters in the sprawling district at a time when face-to-face contact is discouraged.
Webb, a physician at the University of Virginia Medical Center, was among the first of the candidates to cancel public campaign events, replacing them with online Q&As and telephonic town halls in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“The transition has been pretty seamless. We’ve been doing a lot of community engagement work, trying to get the public educated and giving them the opportunity to ask questions,” Webb said. “It’s very different from anything we expected when we started campaigning and something we’re equal to the task of.”
Webb has applied his medical knowledge to the online events, hosting weekly COVID-19 updates on Facebook Live, some of which have featured other health care professionals. Though the numbers vary from event to event, Webb said it has not been uncommon for more than 100 people to watch a livestream at one time.
In general, Webb said he is critical of the federal response to the virus, which he said has been slow to ramp up testing and coordinate supplies for affected areas, leaving the country “behind the eight-ball” when it comes to preparation.
“We knew this was coming, but at this point the federal government has made the right move and pivoted to communicating more,” he said. “It is incredibly important to have clear communications, and while we can’t fix what’s already done, my campaign is focusing on meeting that public need for engagement and information.”
Huffstetler likewise has been dealing with the new logistical campaign challenges and said he spent the first couple of weeks of social distancing trying to communicate with volunteers.
Huffstetler, who unsuccessfully ran for the same nomination in 2018, said the adjustment has been difficult but rewarding.
“There’s no replacement for a door knock, but that is something that is affecting every single candidate and election,” he said. “It’s essential to connect on a grassroots level, and that can still be done with phone calls and social media.”
The pandemic has highlighted many issues relevant to his platform, Huffstetler said, ranging from health care to workplace protections.
“We know for a fact that a big issue here is our service workers and it has become clear we need more unemployment insurance and more personal protection equipment for medical workers,” he said. “It’s been heartening to see people coming together even though times are uncertain.”
Starting Thursday, Huffstetler will be holding virtual roundtables, the first of which will include Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, among others.
Lesinski, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who previously held local offices in Rappahannock County, said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of “retail politics” — a form of campaigning in which a candidate engages directly with constituents at public events.
The challenge has been finding a way to mimic that kind of engagement online, something he has similarly been doing via social media live events.
Though he said his campaign is still trying to find the best platform, he has seen a “good amount” of engagement on Facebook Live.
However, Lesinski acknowledged the challenges of engaging virtually in a sprawling district that contains many rural areas without adequate access to broadband internet.
“During my time on the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, I helped work on expanding rural broadband, and pandemics make problems like that even more acute,” he said. “In times like this, we’ve got to go back to snail mail and emails, getting the word out to voters any way we can.”
Lesinski said he is most frustrated with what he called a lack of leadership and proper planning in the federal response to the pandemic.
“If you see anything coming out of this, it is a complete lack of preparedness and leadership,” he said. “The issue of inadequate personal-protection equipment alone has been horrific.”
Russo, who also has a background in the Marine Corps, similarly highlighted a lack of strong leadership on the federal level as a major problem she sees currently facing the nation.
Russo said that when she was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, as an intelligence officer, the ability to adapt to a situation she and her team were not prepared for was crucial and something a strong leader should be able to facilitate.
Her campaign also has stopped in-person contact, even among campaign staff.
“Our volunteers have shifted to calling voters, assembling resources we can offer to folks and trying to be of assistance to the community,” Russo said.
As she shifts to virtual meet-and-greets, Russo said she is also focusing on raising her three children while her active-duty husband is required to remain on base. In the meantime, she said she has been talking with community members, including her children’s teachers, to get a better sense of what they need.
“I think in this particular moment people are really willing to have a conversation, and that’s what is really essential — the people-to-people contact,” she said. “That kind of conversation doesn’t need to happen in person but it does need to happen.”
The four candidates will face off for the Democratic nomination June 9.
Incumbent Republican Denver Riggleman, who won the district with 53% of the vote in 2018, is facing Liberty University athletics official Bob Good for the GOP nomination.
Note: The Daily Progress will feature Republican contestants at a later date.