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Political candidates suddenly have a formidable new foe: coronavirus

The ongoing pandemic has forced widespread cancellations and the embrace of virtual political campaigning.

Representative Joe Kennedy III (left) and Senator Ed Markey squared off in the first Senate primary debate last month. Their scheduled debate this month was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Photo: Meredith Nierman / WGBH News.
Representative Joe Kennedy III (left) and Senator Ed Markey squared off in the first Senate primary debate last month. Their scheduled debate this month was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Meredith Nierman / WGBH News.Meredith Nierman/WGBH/Pool

Jesse Mermell, one of at least 10 Democrats running in the Fourth Congressional District primary, had originally planned to meet with a dozen female entrepreneurs over coffee and muffins Thursday morning. Instead, she settled into her couch, plopped her dog, Isabella, on her lap, and fired up her laptop to chat with those potential supporters.

Welcome to campaigning in the time of coronavirus.

The mounting public health crisis is upending campaigns around the state, forcing candidates to cancel events, move operations into the virtual realm, and scramble to find new ways to meet voters when pressing the flesh threatens to feed a pandemic.

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Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey in the state’s highest-profile race, said Friday he was suspending his Senate campaign for at least a week, and Markey intends to be in Washington next week.

Organizers later postponed a debate between the two that had been scheduled for Wednesday in Springfield.

The state Democratic Party has suspended in-person caucuses, upending the well-worn delegate-picking process and eliminating the fertile ground where candidates meet activists. And some candidates have pressed Secretary of State William F. Galvin about the possibility of pushing back the deadlines they face for submitting signatures to make the ballot, a basic but crucial step that is complicated when “social distancing” is the new norm.

“It’s daunting. The most effective form of voter persuasion is personal,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist who is assisting Markey’s campaign. “You’re basically taking that off the table.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention. You have to figure out a personal way to do that with voters,” he said.

Governor Charlie Baker on Friday ordered a ban on all gatherings of more than 250 people, including fund-raisers. So with chances for traditional retail politicking being wiped from the calendar, candidates are getting creative.

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Many, including those running in the Fourth District to replace Kennedy, have turned to virtual events in place of the traditional forums. Becky Grossman, a Newton city councilor running in the race, is pushing town halls to her Facebook page, while fellow councilor and candidate Jake Auchincloss has said he’s offering virtual house parties.

Dave Cavell, a former Obama speechwriter running in the primary, released a video on Friday telling supporters his campaign is still operating, but completely digitally. “This is a format that I think you should get used to,” he said. “We’re just coming to you this way, through your screen.”

Mermell turned a campaign office-opening event this Saturday into a virtual event featuring Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, who has endorsed Mermell. The two women will give a tour of the office and answer questions from those watching at home.

Kennedy has gone further, suspending all his campaign activities, including fund-raising, until at least March 20, save for digital communication focused on Covid-19.

It’s part of a shift for some to focused events and messaging on the outbreak itself. Kennedy flew home late Wednesday night to attend an early-morning “emergency response” meeting at East Boston Community Health Center, where the focus was on increased funding for community health centers.

Markey, too, held a virtual press conference Friday about the health emergency with physicians; Dr. George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School; and others.

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“There’s certainly challenges,” said Markey’s campaign manager, John Walsh. For Markey that includes news that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, plans to bring the Senate back into session next week to work on a coronavirus aid package.

Senators had been scheduled to be in their home districts. Markey said Friday that his campaign staff has been working remotely for the last two days. “Without question, this crisis transcends anything else,” he said. “This is the only thing I’m focused on.”

But Walsh said he anticipated the outbreak wouldn’t be as disruptive for the campaign as it could be, given the “relational, friend-to-friend organizing model” on which he’s built the campaign, as well as a focused investment on digital advertising and organizing.

The state Democratic Party is also wrestling with how to complete caucuses, its process for picking delegates for its May 30 state convention in Lowell.

There are still roughly 100 caucuses left, and discussions have reportedly included moving them online. But Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford said the party probably has until mid-May to finish them, giving officials some breathing room. “We really need to address those,” he said.

Other candidates are scrambling in different ways. Brianna Wu, a video game developer who for the second time is challenging Representative Stephen F. Lynch, said while she had 12 people out on Super Tuesday collecting signatures, she remains several hundred short with nothing but canceled events on her calendar.

That could shift a heavier focus to the campaign’s digital operation, but Wu said she learned in her losing bid to Lynch in 2018 that relying too heavily on reaching voters electronically doesn’t cut it. Often, she said, voters who log in for virtual town halls are already supporters.

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Congressional candidates have until May 5 to submit 2,000 signatures and nomination papers to local officials. But Wu questioned whether state officials could push that deadline back.

“I think that’s a very, very important public safety measure,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s ethically justifiable to be sending our team out in the field to collect signatures.”

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said doing so would require action by the Legislature, but he warned it could squeeze other dates on the calendar in what is an already tight time frame.

The Legislature last year moved the state primary up two weeks to Sept. 1 to give state officials enough time to certify elections results in order to make general election ballots available for military personnel and voters living overseas.

Galvin said he wants to be flexible for the handful of campaigns who have called his office about changing the deadlines, but he considers any talk premature.

“If whole cities were quarantined and people couldn’t move out of their homes, it would be a different set of facts,” said Galvin. He suggested candidates could post petitions online, where voters could download them, fill them out, and submit them. Or, if that doesn’t work, a candidate could give people wary of grabbing a clipboard and pen another incentive.

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“If there were creative candidates,” Galvin said, “maybe they would give [voters] free pens if they signed.”


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout