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What is it like to campaign for state Senate in a pandemic?

In an ordinary election year, the idea of a candidate for state office choosing not to knock on doors might sound absurd.

But this is no ordinary election year, and candidates have different perspectives on how to campaign during a pandemic — and whether that involves door-knocking.

The Day interviewed the eight candidates for four state Senate races in the region. Two are first-time candidates for elected office who expressed that they don't know any different than running a campaign in a pandemic.

The candidates have had different experiences based on their job and on how early they finished fundraising. As they're listening to voters, some of the top-of-mind concerns they're hearing are certainly different from ones expressed in election years past.

18th District

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she normally would be knocking on doors but thinks "that's something we really can't do in a pandemic." Asked if she plans to knock on doors at some point, she said, "I think we have to wait and see. Public health is of the utmost importance, more than campaigning or knocking on someone's door."

Ordinarily this time of year, she would be participating in events like the VJ Day Parade or the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival. Now, Somers said she is reaching out by phone and text, individual Zoom meetings and socially distanced meetups.

"I am extremely busy with Senate stuff," she said, noting that her phone rings all day and night with constituent concerns.

Somers listed a wide array of concerns about which people have reached out to her on this campaign: the police accountability bill that recently passed, taxes, children going back to school, Eversource rate hikes, the future of telehealth services.

Democratic opponent Bob Statchen wasn't permitted to participate in any campaign activities from late March until the end of June, when he was activated for the Connecticut Air National Guard and on federal status. He instead relied on others, but now he can do some campaigning when not on duty, such as making calls on the weekend.

Statchen is not door-knocking yet, but said he is looking at case numbers to determine what's appropriate and might knock on doors in the future. He intends to host more online events and do virtual phone banking.

Statchen, who lost to Somers in 2018, noted that no incumbent has lost in the 18th District since 1998 and thinks the pandemic heightens the incumbency advantage.

"The fact that I'm not able to go knocking on doors and meet people I think puts me at a disadvantage, because it's all about name recognition," Statchen said. But he added, "I think the fact that I ran before gives me a slight leg up, not over an incumbent, but it makes it easier than if this was my first time."

19th District

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said her campaigning has been slightly but not substantially different, and she's been knocking on doors in every town in her district for about a month and a half. The difference is that now involves wearing a mask and stepping back several feet after knocking.

Osten said she has been focused on helping people with unemployment and other pandemic-related issues, and more recently on issues with power outages, "which is a little different than concentrating on policies that we passed in the last two sessions."

The senator is participating in the Citizens' Election Program, which provides elections financing but first requires candidates to do their own fundraising. Osten said she finished her fundraising in February, the earliest she's ever been done.

Her opponent, Republican Steve Weir, was also able to finish fundraising before the pandemic hit, saying he declared his candidacy in January and had raised enough money by mid-March.

"This is my first time running for office, so this is my only point of reference," Weir said of campaigning in a pandemic, adding, "For me, this is my normal, and I'm just doing my best to adapt to it."

Weir said he's been making a lot of phone calls and meeting with small business owners — such as restaurants — and that he started knocking on doors two weeks ago, having pledged to do 100 days of door-knocking.

As Statchen also said, Weir noted he's been hearing concerns about schools opening in the fall. Outside of COVID-19 issues, he said he's still hearing from senior citizens concerned with high cost of living, and that he's talked to people unhappy with Osten's vote in favor of the police accountability bill.

20th District

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he put the campaign on hold when the pandemic hit in mid-March, and stopped asking for campaign contributions from people who were having trouble with their business or in their personal lives.

He said there hasn't been much of a ramp-up more recently, other than finishing fundraising and then opening a headquarters two weeks ago. Formica said he hasn't knocked on doors, and is still deciding the best way to do so and what people's reaction would be. Rather, he said the campaign has been doing more on social media and driving people to the website.

Through phone calls, Formica said the big concerns he's been hearing have been about managing life in the COVID-19 environment, Eversource rates, business openings and the return to school.

"The usual subjects of a campaign, taxes and jobs and the economy, have kind of taken a back seat to real life in this case," he said.

Running against Formica for the second election in a row is Democratic candidate Martha Marx.

"I was sweating a lot in August of 2018, because I knocked on like 5,000 doors, so I'm obviously not going to do that this year, so I'm making phone calls in my air-conditioned living room," Marx said. She added that she's made 11,000 phone calls, through which she's heard a lot of questions about COVID-19 and worries from teachers, parents and grandparents about schools reopening.

In her unequivocal opposition to knocking on doors this year, Marx cited exposure she has as a nurse and commented, "I have a hard enough time sleeping as is with COVID."

Marx also noted she's done sign-waving events, standing at Waterford Town Beach and outside Lawrence + Memorial Hospital with campaign signs. She said her campaign is looking at getting a headquarters in Montville, which would be shared with other candidates.

33rd District

"Although I submitted to be reelected and it's in my head that I'm in the middle of a campaign for reelection probably around 90 days away — less than 90 — it's not in the forefront of my mind," said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex.

Needleman said he's spent months "doing nothing but constituent services," such as helping people get unemployment benefits. And this past week, as first selectman of Essex and chairman of the state legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, he had his hands full with power outages. He hopes his work speaks for itself.

Needleman said he won't knock on doors — "I think that it's invasive to people," he said — but volunteers will leave materials on doors and he'll do phone banking from home. As in 2018, he is not participating in the Citizens' Election Program, but still wants to have a broad base of support and is raising money.

"I finally sent out a letter two weeks ago, and felt guilty about it, but I really didn't want to pay for everything on my own," Needleman said. "I felt that was inappropriate. I want to have the 300 donations."

His Republican opponent is Brendan Saunders, who is participating in the Citizens' Election Program and said he spent the end of March and all of April working the phones. While these were people who would be receptive, Saunders said, he took this opportunity not to just ask for money but ask people how they were doing and what their lives were like during the pandemic.

"One of the nice things about the CEP program is the minimum donation is $5," he said, "so there were plenty of times when I said to folks, 'Listen, don't give me more than $5. If you cannot handle that, don't give me more than $5.'"

He said he started doing some business visits in June and more recently began knocking on doors. Saunders, a first-time candidate, has leaned on Republican state representatives in the 33rd to learn how receptive people in different towns might be to door-knocking.

"The only perspective I have is my campaign manager who says: 'Usually this is what's going on and usually this is what happens,'" Saunders said, "so for me there was very little stress in that regard, because I didn't have any context to put it in. All I've known is the hill I'm walking up right now."

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Bob Statchen's last name in the photo captions.

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