PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — While many voters may never meet a senator or president, meeting your candidates for the state Legislature and city council is often just a doorknock away. But not during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Candidates for the Maine Legislature representing seats in the Presque Isle area said that the pandemic was forcing them to use remote ways of reaching voters, mainly social media and television and radio advertisements. Even those going door-to-door are making sure to stay physically distant from the voters they are courting.
Lillie Lavado, the Democratic candidate for Maine House District 147, said that she expected the race to involve high levels of direct voter contact when she first decided to run in February — a month before COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
Lavado — who has a history in political organizing — said that the pandemic made public events like town halls dangerous because of the risk to community members and her own family.
Instead, her campaign has relied primarily on more distant forms of outreach — including mailers and phone banking — to spread their message. Ads featuring Lavado — who has never run for public office before — have also appeared over Facebook.
She said she did have some direct interaction with voters through door-to-door canvassing across Presque Isle. She said not doing so could have risked favoring her opponent, Republican Joseph Underwood.
“[It] was a very difficult decision to make because, on one hand, my opponent has knocked on doors since March without pause,” Lavado said. “On the other, I do not want to potentially expose my family, or our high-risk community members, to the novel coronavirus.”
Rep. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle — challenging incumbent Democratic candidate Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, for his state Senate seat — also met with voters, knocking on doors in District 2 with a mask on, then remaining six feet away.
Stewart said the pandemic had driven campaigning into the sphere of radio and television ads, an expensive medium. State Senate District 2 has seen many tight previous elections, and Stewart winning the seat would play an integral role in the GOP taking control of the Maine Senate.
“In state-level races, it can be hard to compete with all the outside money that’s spent,” Stewart said. “So, you have to be creative and work harder than your opponent if you want to win.”
Carpenter said that he had done little door-to-door campaigning — people were far less likely to answer the door because of the risk from the virus.
“It’s more difficult, and more awkward, to try to have face-to-face contact with the voters,” Carpenter said. “So you rely more on TV advertising and radio advertising.”
He said outside spending was occurring on both sides of the race, going toward ads that neither campaign was directly involved in crafting.
Some advertisements aimed at Stewart have been highly critical, including those highlighting a campaign spending complaint filed against him in September. Maine’s campaign finance watchdog agency — Maine Ethics Commission — unanimously threw out that complaint and said the accusation may have been politically motivated.
Carpenter said he had seen some of the ads aimed at Stewart and “did not like them.” He regrets that they were not able to hold any debates between Stewart and himself this cycle.
He said debates — common in elections around the world — were an easy way for the public to learn about their candidates. Yet, the pandemic made them practically impossible.
Maine House Republican candidate Joseph Underwood did not respond to a request for comment.