Lawmakers are putting the virtual townhalls that marked last year’s Memorial Day holiday on the shelf as parades, fireworks, and veterans ceremonies make a comeback — and with control of Congress on the line next year.
Republicans and Democrats alike say they’re ready to wade into crowds again for coveted face time with their constituents, marking another step in the country’s return to pre-pandemic activities as Covid-19 vaccination rates increase and federal guidelines adjust.
But the re-emergence of in-person events brings fresh concerns about lawmaker safety amid heated political tensions. And it also signals that Democrats, who largely halted door-to-door canvassing last fall, won’t cede a ground game advantage to the GOP again in 2022.
“Candidates and campaigns are back to direct voter contact,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant whose client list includes Melanie Stansbury, who’s running in Tuesday’s special election for New Mexico’s 1st District.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff is headlining a volunteer canvassing kickoff for Stansbury on Thursday in Albuquerque. Virginia state Delegate Sam Rasoul, another McKenna client who’s running in the June 8 primary for lieutenant governor, has also had volunteers door-knocking, McKenna said, and has handed out hundreds of masks adorned with his logo.
Back in Business
Interviews with several members of the House and Senate revealed an eagerness to get back to the events that were critical components of their job before 2020.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said she might not be ready for shaking hands with her Lehigh Valley constituents, but she’s mingling without a mask.
“I’m kind of happy with the fist bump or the elbow bump,” Wild said in an interview ahead of an event to dedicate a Pennsylvania elementary school named in memory of veterans. “Somebody got me a T-shirt that says, ‘No mask but I’m still not a hugger.’ But it took a toll on all of us not to be able to go out in public with folks and hear from them.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) laid low last spring after being the first member of the House to be diagnosed with Covid-19. He for months avoided physical contact with his South Florida constituents that he said is typical of his Hispanic culture. But Diaz-Balart said he’s back pressing the flesh with voters.
“Remember in my community we hug and kiss,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview. “I’m out there already. If you look at where we are now just about everybody who wants the vaccine has access to the vaccine.”
This year’s Memorial Day is the start of a full summer of traditional events for lawmakers, who had to sharply curtail contact with the public in the months leading up to the 2020 election. By July 4, President Joe Biden wants at least 70% of the population to have had their first shot.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) was in the closing weeks of a highly competitive re-election when he tested positive for Covid-19 and had to self-quarantine. Throughout his campaign he relied heavily on virtual town halls to reach voters.
“It’s completely different now,” Tillis said in an interview. “I’ve been to a lot of events over the past couple of weeks,” and he plans to spend time with veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project.
The resumption of traditional events at veterans facilities is important to politicians seeking to reconnect with voters, said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has in-person events planned during the holiday.
“But I think they’re actually more important for the people to be able to go out and think about what made this country,” Tester said in an interview.
On the Trail
With the 2022 cycle already in full gear in many places, lawmakers running for re-election “are not going to waste a day,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant.
“All politics is local, and they want to see them in the local parade, at the picnics,” Walsh said. “This is an opportunity for constituents to talk to members of Congress directly and vice-versa. There’s a huge hunger in communities around the country to have a return to normalcy.”
Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant, noted that Democrats opted to return to canvassing ahead of the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs, which he said was critical to the twin victories. Some of his clients in areas with low infection rates did so as well before the 2020 elections, while others have already begun ahead of the midterms.
“Politically, it will also be important for Democratic candidates to show that Covid is a thing of the past heading into 2022 because so much of Biden’s — and therefore the party’s — fate depends on his leadership out of the pandemic (and he’s doing very well on that),” Russell said in an email. “That means returning quickly but responsibly to in-person events and the kind of stereotypical campaign setups voters are used to seeing.”
But public forays this year also carry risks for lawmakers beyond those posed by the virus. According to the United States Capitol Police, threats against lawmakers rose 107% in the first two months of 2021.
Tensions in the Capitol have persisted since the Jan. 6 attack, which put the issue of member safety in stark relief. So did the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at an event in her district and the 2017 congressional baseball practice shooting that seriously wounded House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations panel overseeing the police budget, said the recently passed House emergency spending bill (H.R. 3237) includes $21.5 million extra to address lawmaker security, including while traveling and at home. It remains unclear, however, when the Senate will take up the measure. Of that amount, $10.6 million is for security upgrades in state offices.
“We have had many tough conversations with our colleagues,” said Ryan, who recently announced a run for the Senate and is currently on a campaign tour of Ohio. “We are living in a new reality.”
Some lawmakers have local law enforcement providing more security. The Federal Election Commission has said lawmakers can spend campaign money on personal body guards and for home security upgrades.
Others may be taking advantage of conceal carry laws, Walsh said, citing Republicans who’ve been vocal about their permits.
“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you’d be naïve to think that security should not be a concern or top of mind in these heated political times that we live in,” Walsh said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org