SCHENECTADY — People came out of their houses on Schenectady Street and scratched their heads.
So did the occupants of cars that slowed to ask what was going on.
Thearse McCalmon, who is seeking to unseat state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, was handing out masks to anyone who wanted one.
Incumbents have always been crafty at generating publicity and their positions allow them to create a powerful photo opportunity virtually whenever they want.
The coronavirus has handed them a particularly gripping and effective tool to promote not only themselves, but also their role in state and federal relief efforts.
But for those seeking to oust them, the virus has instantly reordered the campaign landscape:
Grip-and-grin events like pig roasts, town halls and showing up at any event where they have a reasonable chance at grabbing a voter’s ear have all been in deep freeze since mid-March.
“We all pivoted because campaigning means reaching people, going out to events, grouping together, talking to people, shaking hands and kissing babies,” McCalmon said. “But because of this pandemic, we can’t do that anymore.”
The crisis has upended the campaign landscape and candidates are turning to a yet-evolving playbook.
Like most hopefuls, McCalmon is leaning heavily into social media, which has become the prime conduit for candidates to connect with the outside world.
Liz Joy, who is challenging Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, has been shopping for seniors, shut-ins and single parents and making home deliveries.
Joy, an author and conservative activist, said one post went viral and was picked up by national television affiliates, a boost that gave her campaign much-needed momentum.
“One of these things we’re really focusing on is serving the people,” Joy said. “We’re doing giveaways and showing up to peoples’ homes to just encourage them. Of course, we’re respective of social distancing.”
For candidates, the relief efforts are part of a carefully curated digital landscape that weds tutorials on how to access government resources and the latest CDC guidance to scorching broadsides against the politicians they aim to defeat.
Tedra Cobb aims to defeat Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, in November.
While she’s leaning into digital, hosting virtual Q&As with medical experts, Cobb is also heavily relying on traditional tools like phone banking.
Within the past 30 days, Cobb’s campaign has made over 130,000 phone calls to swing voters in the sprawling 21st Congressional District, as well as 5,000 outreach calls to senior citizens.
“It’s hard for me not to be physical with people, and I love getting out and meeting as many people as possible,” Cobb said. “But that’s where our army of volunteers is coming in. We’re doing what we do best as a team and focus on people, and we as a team have always risen to the moment.”
The political landscape is undeniably difficult for challengers who are struggling to campaign in a way that allows them to cut through the fast-moving news cycle and connect with a distracted — and traumatized — public.
“This becomes an environment which really favors incumbents,” said Bob Turner, an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
While portions of the state are poised to carefully reopen their construction and manufacturing sectors as early as Friday, there’s no indication when conventional campaigning can safely make a comeback.
The obstacles for challengers run far deeper than social distancing measures and scrambling to get media coverage alongside incumbents who are cruising above the turbulence by highlighting their response to the crisis.
The bubbling sense of anxiety may also make it difficult to attract campaign volunteers and generate interest, Turner said.
Additionally, the virus has framed all other issues and hurts challengers who wanted to run on different platforms, Turner said.
And people are simply thirsting for good news, which means lobbing attack lines may ultimately backfire.
“It’s really hard to criticize incumbents and be negative,” Turner said. “They don’t want to hear negativity and harshness.”
Just about every campaign is leaning into developing online strategies and fine-tuning the details.
“I wish there was a unique strategy,” said Patrick Nelson, who is seeking to unseat Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, in state Senate District 43, which covers Saratoga Springs and stretches to the Saugerties border in Ulster County.
Nelson, a veteran of digital-first political campaigns and a Stillwater village trustee, has tinkered with everything from hosting policy discussions to virtual concerts.
Organizing is also different now.
While Nelson is unsure if the ever-deepening national unemployment rate, which is now inching toward 15 percent, will spur an uptick in volunteerism, teleconferencing software will allow campaigns to cast a broader net for recruiting staff.
“Everyone you hire will be remote, anyways, so you can look at folks further away from the district or in other parts of the state,” he said.
But the cratered economy will inevitably affect fundraising.
“It certainly makes the fundraising side of things more difficult,” Nelson said.
The evaporation of traditional electioneering also deprives candidates from refining their messages throughout the course of a long campaign, Turner said.
Delivering comments at forums and out on the campaign trail allows candidates to take the public’s temperature, float talking points and attack lines and subsequently fine-tune that message, Turner said.
“You’re doing a continuous real-time focus group,” he said.
Some races with no incumbents have fallen into somewhat of a stasis.
Four candidates are running to replace Sen. George Amedore, who is retiring from his seat representing portions of Montgomery, Schenectady, Albany, Greene and Ulster counties at the end of the year.
Gary Greenberg, an advocate for child sexual abuse victims, will square off against communications executive Michelle Hinchey in the Democratic primary on June 23.
Building up name recognition has been difficult, he said, making it difficult to gain traction.
“The key will be digital media and getting people to mail back absentee ballots every registered Democrat voter will receive,” Greenberg said.
Republican candidate Rich Amedure, a retired state trooper, agreed name recognition will play a key role in determining who voters send to Albany in November.
Amedure is a distant relative of Amedore — although they spell their name differently — and both can trace their roots back to the same region in southern Italy, he said.
And Hinchey, who did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment on Monday, is the daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey.
Amedure was optimistic campaigning would rebound by the general election in November — with the proper social distancing protocols, of course.
“Hopefully the state opens up soon,” he said.
Green Party candidate Robert Alft, Jr. did not respond for comment.
Despite the obstacles, voters have “tremendous uncertainty” over what the economic and public health landscape will eventually look like this fall, Turner said.
“It’s all going to be a referendum on the direction of the country,” Turner said. “If things haven’t improved significantly, that’s an improvement for challengers.”