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Postponed events, virtual outreach: Coronavirus disrupts campaign for region’s congressional seat

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sits listens to Vice President Mike Pence at a campaign event Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018 at the Spokane Convention Center. Her campaign to retain her seat in Congress has been altered by coronavirus-related distancing measures. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A global pandemic that has halted large gatherings, discouraged face-to-face contact and shut people inside their homes has forced changes in the way the three candidates for Eastern Washington’s seat in Congress are approaching the November contest.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has put on hold several fundraisers that have traditionally been kickoff events in her 15-year stint in Congress. Democrat Chris Armitage has shifted his campaign to virtual outreach, and Republican challenger Rob Chase is hoping to return to regular campaigning this summer.

The coronavirus outbreak forced the postponement of McMorris Rodgers’ traditional kickoff breakfasts around the region, including one scheduled at the Davenport Grand on March 18.

“It’s modified things,” McMorris Rodgers said last week, outside the Vitalant blood donation clinic in Spokane. The campaign organized an appointment-only blood drive “as a way to raise awareness” about the need for medical supplies during the pandemic, the congresswoman said.

Those campaign breakfasts will take place at a later date, McMorris Rodgers said.

Armitage has spent the time before and during Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order to secure endorsements from local prominent progressive politicians, including former City Council President Ben Stuckart and current Councilwoman Kate Burke.

Armitage is the lone Democrat who has announced a candidacy, with Washington Commerce Director Lisa Brown issuing a statement on Facebook at the end of March indicating she wasn’t interested in running for Congress or lieutenant governor.

“This campaign was really about knocking on the most doors, and now that’s not an option,” Armitage said in an interview Friday. “So we’re asking, how do we connect one-on-one with folks in another way?”

One of those ways involves planned weekly video chats with guests based on different subjects that Armitage said are important to his platform.

On April 10, Armitage spoke with Mike Yestramski, union president of the Washington Federation of State Employees. The two, appearing in their homes on a Zoom chat, discussed labor issues, specifically their perceived failings in the relief packages passed by Congress for the state’s front-line workers.

“Volunteers are flocking to this campaign in greater numbers than ever before,” Armitage said. “Through our social media contacts, we’re seeing that people are out of work and angry.”

Even with that support, and the endorsement of the Spokane County Democrats and other prominent Democrats, Armitage will have a tough hill to climb if recent history is any indication. Brown managed to fundraise at a similar clip to McMorris Rodgers and earned the backing of prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, but fell by nine percentage points in the November 2018 election.

The congresswoman also is not yet facing the same kind of primary field that left her appearing potentially vulnerable in 2018. Chase, a former Spokane County treasurer with libertarian political leanings, is McMorris Rodgers’ only challenger from the right. Two years ago, there were three other conservative candidates in the primary field.

Chase, who announced his candidacy in the middle of February, just a few weeks before social distancing orders were handed down, said he was able to knock on some doors prior to the shutdown. He believes contributions might be lagging to his campaign, but anticipated being able to resume normal campaigning sometime this summer.

“A lot of people that would normally donate to me, middle-class people, I think they’re wondering, ‘Do I need to hang on to what I’ve got to buy food in the future?’” Chase said.

In the past, Chase – a political defender of state Rep. Matt Shea and supporter of fiscal policies that include accepting gold and silver as legal tender and allowing states to run banks – has voiced concern about the mounting national debt. The $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress will add to that mounting figure, Chase said, but he also noted it could help residents pay their bills.

“I think it’s going to cost more in the long run, but maybe it might help some people get through this time if they spend it wisely,” Chase said.

Chase plans to continue recording videos and writing online articles about issues he finds topical, he said, referring to himself as a “citizen journalist.”

He recently recorded an interview with Afshin Yaghtin, the pastor and Church at Planned Parenthood member who was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a police officer at a South Hill library event where drag queens read storybooks. He also wrote an essay identifying himself as “a Trump Republican,” a descriptor he repeated in an interview.

McMorris Rodgers said her campaign has not yet discussed whether it will change traditional door-knocking efforts during the summer months or the potential effect of stay-home orders on an annual fundraising dinner held in the district. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, stumped for McMorris Rodgers at the event, called the Pink Flamingo dinner, two years ago.

McMorris Rodgers said a recent virtual town hall event held by the campaign was focused more on getting people necessary information about how to find assistance during the pandemic.

“The focus right now is on the crisis at hand,” she said.

In recent days, the congresswoman has released more information about how to report fraud and adhere to medical guidelines on social distancing than direct appeals to voters.

The McMorris Rodgers campaign has also purchased gift cards to support local businesses that will be distributed to volunteers for use when they reopen. That’s in an effort to provide economic support for the shops during the forced closure, the congresswoman said.

McMorris Rodgers maintains a hefty fundraising lead on her two opponents, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. The congresswoman’s campaign has $1.4 million in cash on hand.

Armitage raised a little more than $11,000 through the end of the year, and said last week his campaign raised $45,000 in the first three months of 2020, though that money had not been reported by the FEC as of Friday.

Chase has also not yet reported financial earnings. A spokeswoman for the FEC said via email some financial reporting had been delayed by the commission’s receipt of mail, which has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Congressional candidates must file with the secretary of state’s office between May 11 and 15 to appear on the August ballot.