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Pandemic Shifts Spanberger’s Playbook on Door-Knocking

Freitas speaks to crowd in parking lot
Nick Freitas addresses supporters in Henrico on Saturday. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) and her allies seemed to be in every nook and cranny of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District in 2018, when she bested Republican Dave Brat by less than 7,000 votes. The campaign knocked on tens of thousands of doors in an effort to mobilize voters and energize volunteers; one supporter knocked 6,000 doors on her own.

The coronavirus has dashed any plans to repeat that effort this year, with the campaign citing the pandemic-related risks of the tactic. Pundits say that could give an opening to Republicans like Spanberger’s opponent, Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper).

Freitas made that case at the opening of his new Henrico campaign office on Saturday. Supporters clustered inside the new office for coffee and donuts; some, including Freitas, donned masks, while others went without. Campaign staff nudged supporters out to the parking lot, where Freitas spoke.

“You guys knocking doors -- and doing it safely, responsibly, respecting people’s boundaries -- that is one of the most effective ways you can possibly campaign,” Freitas said. “What you are doing today is what’s going to make a difference on November 3.”

President Donald Trump’s campaign has resumed full canvassing operations across the U.S., with aides boasting of 1 million doors knocked per week in August as Democrat Joe Biden’s team have avoided the strategy. In the 7th Congressional District, various conservative interest groups, including Americans for Prosperity and Liberty PAC, have knocked doors encouraging voters to support Freitas. Joe Desilets, a spokesman for the libertarian-leaning Republican, said the campaign has already knocked on 50,000 doors.

Spanberger has advantages of her own. She had more than $4 million in cash on hand as of June 30, compared to around $350,000 for Freitas. She’s pumped that money on to TV ads, outspending Freitas’ campaign by around $1.5 million so far, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. When outside interest groups are included, the advantage shrinks to about $1.2 million.

Spanberger has ventured out in person -- mask on -- on several occasions over the past week, including welcoming early voters in Henrico and attending a NAACP voter registration event in Orange. The campaign has stepped up in-person drop offs of campaign flyers, starting with around 13,000 homes in Henrico and Chesterfield counties ahead of the start of early voting. And they’re encouraging volunteers to conduct phone calls, a tactic also used by Freitas’ campaign.

“Safety remains a top priority for Abigail's campaign during this moment of uncertainty, and all events with volunteers are conducted in a careful and responsible manner," said Bettina Weiss, Spanberger’s campaign manager. “Abigail is working in Congress to move COVID-19 relief forward, and she looks forward to the moment when normal campaign activities can resume. She is deeply grateful for her dedicated team of Seventh District volunteers for their hard work amid unprecedented adversity."

Chris Mann, a political scientist at Skidmore College who studies U.S. political campaigns, described door knocking as the “gold standard” of voter mobilization techniques. He said the difference between the two parties may have as much to do with voter habits as it does with public health concerns.

“If Democrats aren’t opening the door, there’s no point in canvasing,” Mann said. “If Republicans are, it’s the most effective tactic -- full stop.”

Freitas’ biggest challenge is gaining name recognition in suburban Richmond, according to political analyst Bob Holsworth. Freitas also got a late start thanks to a delayed GOP nominating convention that wasn't resolved until July, Holsworth said.

Spanberger will have to overcome the diminishment of a field operation that Holsworth called the most effective he’d seen in Virginia politics. And she’ll have to do it with Trump’s name on the ballot, in a district he won by 6.5 points in 2016.

“She’s a great candidate, but that doesn’t mean that she’ll win,” Holsworth said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article noted a BBQ dinner in Orange that was not a campaign stop. The article been updated to more accurately reflect her activities there. The article also noted an 8 point margin of victory for Trump in 2016; that data, which was sourced from VPAP, did not include absentee ballots. The updated story reflects more complete information from Virginia's Department of Elections.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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