Say one thing for the three DFL candidates vying for the 8th Congressional District nomination: they’re resolute in the face of a crisis.
For Quinn Nystrom, Gaylene Spolarich and Soren Sorensen, not even the COVID-19 pandemic, or the ways in which it's amplifying incumbents and hamstringing face-to-face politics, is causing them doubt.
“I am a determined person who will not give up, because I know so many people need a fighter,” Nystrom said last week. “I’m steadfast in that commitment, now more than ever.”
The others expressed similar resolve to the News Tribune. So, as Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, speaks on public airwaves and appears in these and other pages to share his perspective on the national response to the spread of coronavirus, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor field has been forced to adjust on the fly to the reality of campaigning from a distance.
To replace a convention process that’s been canceled, they’ve got two-minute videos due April 23 for delegates to view and their own guile along the way. The candidates said they have been informed that ranked-choice voting will be in effect for the online and mail delegate balloting that will launch in mid-May. Sixty percent of delegates are required to win nomination.
If the first choice doesn’t yield a nominee, the last place candidate is dropped and voters’ second choices are tallied. If no candidate emerges with 60%, there will be no endorsement; the district’s executive committee can vote to overrule, or an August primary in advance of the November election could ensue.
“The DFL did the right thing (by canceling live conventions),” Sorensen said. “But it's been hard to adapt to. I think I’m better at direct voter contact and door-knocking. I love our conventions and the face-to-face grassroots politics. Other candidates with more money, like Pete Stauber, will be able to do more with expensive glossy mailers and bought airtime. No conventions means a bigger harm to me.”
Even though 30% of localized, lead-up conventions took place before stay-at-home orders, Spolarich is having trouble getting email addresses to go with phone numbers for delegates.
“It’s vital — I need the email lists, too, in order to make contact,” she said, frustrated by local party leaders slow to react. “Some party chairs are saying, ‘I can’t give you that.’ In some of the cases they haven’t held their conventions yet, and don’t know who their delegates are. But the ones completed are not really cooperative so far.”
One local party officer bristled profanely in a social media response to Sorensen for his query wondering if there were union shops in the district making face masks he could use for his campaign. But the candidate said he understood the harsh response.
“I really empathize with other people who are feeling a lot of fear about contact with other people,” Sorensen said. “It’s going to be hard to get people to restart that — and that world is still a long ways out. It’s going to be months before we’ve got comprehensive testing.”
Instead, the campaigns are moving online, where Nystrom has already conducted Zoom events with double-digit counts of guests, and where Spolarich promised to host town halls in the near future.
“Being on the phone every single day, seven days a week, I have never gotten a stronger response from people to volunteer,” Nystrom said, detailing one gig worker from Duluth who said he couldn’t afford to pledge money, but that he would give her sweat equity.
Nystrom, too, has seen her livelihood hit hard by economic effects of the crisis. The diabetes advocate has had public speaking engagements, the majority of her income, canceled and prospects dried up in the near term.
“I don’t give up; I have not lost hope,” she said. “I certainly feel the pain of small business owners who are losing their jobs right now, but what I feel like I can do is fight harder than ever in this race.”
Sorensen said staying in the race gives him an edge others don't have.
“At least I’ve got a foot in the door,” he said. “I can advocate for people out there. I spend a lot of time advocating for equity.”
He promised to pay close attention to the possible fourth round of federal rescue legislation, which needs to do a better job, he said, for poorer and less connected communities like those in his Beltrami and Cass counties.
Meanwhile, Spolarich is juggling raising (and now further educating) four foster children under 12 at home as their legal guardian, along with a ramped-up pace working for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
“My program is in early education, and we’ve become a lifeline for all the children and families I serve,” Spolarich said. “I thought hard about this when this pandemic started, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I thought, ‘Nobody is going to be able to push policies forward that protect all of the people who live in my district like I can.’”
Despite their optimism, none of the campaigns seemed to be doing great financially. Nystrom’s campaign, which raised more than $100,000 in the final quarter of 2019, and hired full-time staffers in response, declined to share its latest figures, due later this month to the Federal Election Commission. Sorensen claimed to have raised around a couple hundred bucks and admitted he could do better, and Spolarich said she’s reliant on a cast of volunteers with plans to send postcards, but that raising money hasn’t been a priority of late. It was endorsements she said she wanted most.
None of the candidates seemed to worry about Stauber’s position as an incumbent with access to comparatively vast financial resources.
“I don’t know why he would have the edge,” Spolarich said. “What has he done? He’s the reason when I thought about this three weeks ago that this is going to be worth it to try and move this forward. I thought about him, and how I’m not giving up and letting him win things.”
Nystrom lamented under-prepared elements of the national response to the virus, and said the pandemic only emphasizes the central point of her campaign, which is health-care affordability. Reflecting on the current health crisis, Nystrom said she has learned that health care always boils down to a question: "Do we make investments now, or do we pay more later?"
“Does the incumbent have an inherent advantage, sure,” Nystrom said. “But I entered this race because we needed a health care champion.”
Stauber told the News Tribune last month that he would fight against any sort of Medicare-For-All-style takeover of the national health care system.
"I will not let our seniors down," Stauber said. "For Medicare For All to be put forward that would be devastating to good-paying jobs, and for our country."
"He's showing up, he's doing some work and you have to respect that," Sorensen said of Stauber. "I would have more confidence in him if he came from a place of objective, scientific literacy."
This story originally listed an incorrect relationship between Gaylene Spolarich and her foster children. It was updated at 2:25 p.m. April 5. The News Tribune regrets the error.