What are you hopeful for right now?

Democratic state Senate candidate Nikil Saval posed the question to 70-some people who attended his campaign’s Zoom town hall on Monday night. Attendees typed messages into the chat window of the teleconferencing app, which now serves as a bridge to reach voters in the era of coronavirus.

“I am hopeful that our country and everyone in it bounces back better than ever,” wrote Stan Horwitz, 58, a Temple University employee who lives in Pennsylvania’s 1st Senate District.

Saval launched his bid against Democratic state Sen. Larry Farnese last year at a time no one foresaw the end of handshakes and door-to-door canvassing. Now, in Philly and nationwide, candidates are pivoting to virtual meetups. Many are pushing mail-in ballots as fears intensify about heading at the polling place during a pandemic.

A Zoom town hall with Pa. Senate candidate Nikil Saval

Some analysts say incumbents will have the advantage in state and local races this year, with projections that voter turnout will plummet.

In addition to the top-ticket presidential race, Philly voters will choose candidates for Pa.’s General Assembly in the primary election — which has been postponed from April 28 to June 2.

Several seats on the Democratic side are up for grabs, with Farnese’s being one the more hotly contested.

At Saval’s town hall on Monday, many said they hoped universal healthcare would gain more traction in light of the estimated 3.5 million Americans who lost coverage in recent weeks, to say nothing of those already living without insurance.

Caroline Burkholder, a 28-year-old South Philly resident, said she’s optimistic about the increased use of telemedicine. Max Woessner, another voter in the district, said he hopes the post-pandemic world will empathize more with those who are chronically isolated at home.

The pandemic has forced campaigns to reorient around resources — connecting people with info on everything from testing sites to unemployment benefits. It’s a stark shift from stump-speech machines to “how can I help you” hotlines.

Campaigning on coronavirus policy plans

An hour before Saval’s town hall, Rick Krajewski, a state representative candidate for West Philly’s 188th Pa. House seat, held his own virtual meetup.

He and Saval released a joint “coronavirus response plan” on Monday — the first Philly candidates to begin campaigning around the virus on a policy level, they say.

Krajewski said his own financial situation has been upended by the pandemic, especially with the primary postponed. “I have to contend with an additional six weeks living off of savings, with a more difficult task of finding employment after the election,” he said at the town hall. “How am I going to pay my rent? What if I get coronavirus?”

The proposal he and Saval released is sweeping in scope, touching on issues both in and beyond the purview of the state’s legislative body.

It calls for a rent moratorium, a one-year hold on utility bills and emergency cash assistance for those not eligible by unemployment, including undocumented assistance, among other issues ranging from student loan debt forgiveness to how to handle ICE detention.

The candidates are also using the plan as a wedge issue — noting that they haven’t seen any other campaign platforms formed around COVID-19.

Incumbents, however, are still engaging voters around the pandemic, even if they’re not explicitly campaigning.

State Sen. Larry Farnese, whose seat Saval is chasing, said his campaign operation is taking a backseat to his day-to-day work. He has hosted virtual meetings since the outbreak, he said, while attending legislative sessions on Zoom and addressing concerns around healthcare workers and rising hate crimes.

“Campaigns are important, and we will adapt, but right now my focus is governing,” Farnese told Billy Penn. “My attention first and foremost is directed at my constituents.”

Voter outreach when ‘people are really isolated’

Many incumbents and their challengers are pushing for more mail-in voting.

Knocking on doors and talking to people on the ground is a campaign’s bread and butter. Now, communication has shifted almost entirely to phone banking — and many campaign staffers say people seem more willing to stay on the line.

“People are really isolated right now and want people to talk to,” said Amanda Mcillmurray, Saval’s campaign director.

“We’re starting out the conversation asking what support they need in their life. Do they need to pick up groceries and prescriptions? Did they lose their job? Do they have healthcare?”

The conversations ideally pivot to connecting them back to the candidate, but sometimes they’re just there to lend an ear and offer guidance.

“If the purpose [of running for office] is to help people, then we should use the campaign to the best we can to help people,” said Vanessa McGrath, an attorney running as a Democrat for the 175th Pa. House District. “We keep them company. We check in on them.”

Many candidates are using the opportunity to encourage people to apply for a mail-in ballot.

Advocates have begun calls for Gov. Tom Wolf to automatically send mail-in ballots to every voter in the state. As it stands, Pennsylvania voters still need to apply for a mail-in ballot online or by using a paper form. A state ID or driver’s license is required to submit it online.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...