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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine candidates and political organizations are canceling events and suspending door-to-door canvassing in response to the new coronavirus in a move that aligns with public health recommendations but could have consequences for campaigns and voter registration across the state.
As of Saturday, there are three confirmed cases of the virus in Maine, though some experts believe the virus has likely spread significantly more than that. Gov. Janet Mills recommended postponing gatherings with more than 250 people as a precautionary measure, and the Maine CDC has encouraged “social distancing” — which throws a wrench in traditional campaign activities such as town halls, door-to-door canvassing and high-dollar fundraisers.
Over the past few days, U.S. Senate candidates Sara Gideon, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman, three of the Democrats who will be competing in a June primary for the right to take on Republican incumbent Susan Collins in November, said they would suspend public events, while former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse said “there may be some changes” to campaign events.
Gideon, who has raised $7.6 million through the end of 2019, a significant haul for a nonincumbent, has also suspended fundraising events for the next few weeks. Her campaign said it would resume “Suppers for Sara,” a series of public events at which the Freeport Democrat has met with people across the state, “once it is safe to do so.”
Collins’ campaign also canceled several upcoming events after the Senate opted to skip a recess next week and return to Washington to work on coronavirus-related legislation.
Other political events canceled include the Penobscot County Republican Committee’s annual Lincoln Day dinner and an upcoming Maine State Democratic Committee Meeting. Statewide events that would normally attract politicians, including bicentennial celebrations this weekend and the Maine Sportsman’s Show, have also shut down.
“As a candidate for Congress, this certainly impacts our ability to meet voters face to face,” said former state Rep. Dale Crafts, one of the Republicans competing in a congressional primary in the 2nd District, of the cancellations earlier this week. He added that he supported “necessary precautions” to protect public safety.
David Boyer, a spokesperson for 2nd District candidate Eric Brakey, also a Republican, said the campaign would largely focus on phonebanking, email and Facebook rather than in-person canvassing in the coming weeks.
“I think that is the responsible thing to do,” Boyer said.
The Brakey campaign had already knocked on 30,000 doors, Boyer said. But he said that calling voters was also always going to be a central part of the campaign given the 2nd District’s sprawling geography. He added that the campaign would consider events on a case-by-case basis and was not canceling an April fundraiser with Mayor Glenn Jacobs of Knoxville, Tennessee, better known as the WWE wrestler Kane.
The coronavirus outbreak has also served up a challenge for voter registration groups, particularly those aimed at youth turnout. The majority of the state’s four-year colleges have moved to online classes due to the outbreak, with students across the states asked to pack up and leave campus. That has made things harder for organizations such as NextGen Maine, a progressive group focused on mobilizing young voters that has built up a significant presence in the state as part of an effort to organize against Collins.
Elizabeth Rosen, press secretary of NextGen Maine, said the group had sent organizers to college campuses to help students register to vote “pretty much every day since the semester started.” Now, with campuses that will be empty for at least several months, NextGen is pivoting toward online outreach.
But Rosen acknowledged that, while digital and text messaging campaigns might be able to help engage younger Mainers, registering voters would be more difficult. She hoped the crisis might lead the state to consider a policy change down the road. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow residents to register to vote online. Maine is not one of them.
“This is a situation where online voter registration would be very useful,” Rosen said.
Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus