Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham hasn’t campaigned in person since the first stay-at-home order was issued in March.
Instead, he’s been campaigning by Zoom, like a call earlier this week to discuss the COVID-19 relief bill in Congress.
His opponent, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, has mostly supported North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s health mandates, but he joined President Trump on Tuesday night in Winston-Salem before hundreds of people.
Up and down the ballot, there’s an increasing divide between the two parties over their willingness to engage the public.
Republicans are more willing to leave their homes, whether going door to door, attending the president’s rallies or going to in-person fundraisers.
North Carolina Democrats are, for the most part, unified in keeping events virtual.
"They are not leaving the house. I think it’s interesting that they are completely mailing in the campaign," said Michael Whatley, the chair of the state Republican Party. "They’re not out and about. They’re not doing official events. I’ve never seen this before where an entire slate of candidates has said, 'We’re going to stand down and run an entirely virtual campaign.'"
What’s unclear is whether swing voters will reward Democrats for playing it safe or whether the GOP will capitalize by allowing voters to see and hear them first-hand. Whatley said even small in-person events draw media coverage that boosts a candidate's profile.
The Democrats' strategy is aimed at swing voters, said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, who advises Gov. Cooper. He believes Democrats are more concerned about the virus and that meet-and-greets – even if they are small and outside – are more for the base.
"Are swing voters going to attend those events?" Jackson said. "That’s really, in my opinion, less about swing voters than about rallying your base. And you know, I think there’s a lot of other ways to do it."
Many Charlotte-area state legislative Democrats are in mostly safe seats, and they have the luxury of protecting a lead. One of them is first-term state House member Wesley Harris, who had an extensive door-knocking program en route to an upset win two years ago.
"We’re not planning on doing any of that this year because of COVID," Harris said. "Like, honestly, I feel like that could even backfire because (people) don’t want you showing up on their front door when they are trying to keep distance."
Mecklenburg County's most competitive legislative race is a rematch between Democrat Christy Clark and Republican John Bradford, whom she narrowly defeated two years ago. Bradford says he’s concerned about the virus and that most of his events are virtual. But he’s done some in-person, backyard fundraisers.
"The events we’ve had have been small groups," he said. "We've done them outside to obviously follow the social guidelines per the governor’s orders, but we’ve had as many events using technology as we’ve had outside."
There are exceptions.
In the 11th District U.S. House race in the mountains, Democrat Moe Davis is doing some small outdoor meet-and-greets. He is the underdog against Republican Madison Cawthorn in a district that Trump won easily in 2016 but has been redrawn for the 2020 election.
Democrat Cynthia Wallace is running in the 9th District, another mostly conservative district that stretches from south Charlotte to Lumberton. She’s trying to unseat first-term U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, who is doing some in-person campaigning.
Wallace has done some "live" events, though they have been focused on keeping people in their cars.
"We did a face mask drive in Robeson County," she said. "I’ve also done a couple of drive-through events. People drive up. It’s a very short burst and interaction."
Under Phase 2.5 of North Carolina's reopening plan, the state now allows outdoor gatherings of 50 people. Wallace said that for now, she won’t do traditional in-person events.
In the high-profile U.S. Senate race, both sides are making campaign strategies an issue. The Tillis campaign chides Cunningham for not campaigning in person, saying he is afraid to answer questions from voters and the media.
Cunningham highlighted Tillis’ in-person attendance at Trump’s acceptance speech at the White House last month. Tillis tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask before the speech but was seen not wearing it once the president began his address. He later said he has tried to lead by example but fell short of his own standard.
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