Door to Door with Senate Candidates for Southeast Connecticut

Every day of the 2020 campaign for the Connecticut State Senate has run under a shadow of pandemic, with reports in the final weeks before election day of increasing hospitalizations and a rising statewide daily positivity rate for COVID-19. “A second wave,” Gov. Ned Lamont called news on Thursday of a 6.1 percent state positivity rate.

But with time still before the election, candidates are finding ways to get out the vote and get in touch with district residents.

To get a flavor of the election and a sense of the challenges, CT Examiner checked in on two competitive races in the southeastern corner of the state -– tagging along as incumbents and challengers knocked on doors and volunteers phone banked in the final days of their campaigns.

Bob Statchen, a two-time Democratic candidate in the 18th District, said that he has focused all of his volunteers on phone banking in an effort to prioritize safety during the pandemic. 

“We did some canvassing early on, but we eliminated that once the positivity rate started going up,” Statchen said. “I felt the benefits weren’t outweighed by the public health risks. I know other people weighed it differently, but for me, the risk of a volunteer getting COVID-19 made it an easy calculation.” 

Bella Langlois, a field director on the Statchen campaign, said she has missed out on the traditional campaign experience, but appreciates the opportunity to reach as many voters as possible. 

“We did some canvassing early on, but we eliminated that once the positivity rate started going up,” Statchen said. “I felt the benefits weren’t outweighed by the public health risks. I know other people weighed it differently, but for me, the risk of a volunteer getting COVID-19 made it an easy calculation.” 

“This is the first campaign I’ve ever worked on, and all I’ve done is make phone calls,” said Langlois, a junior at the University of Connecticut. “I’ve still never done any in-person canvassing, so this is all I know.” 

Another Statchen volunteer, Nick Vegliante, said he was frustrated by the constraints of phone banking. He said that he has found other campaigning methods far more fruitful. 

“You can contact a lot more people more quickly, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had an extremely productive conversation on the phone,” said Vegliante, who serves as chair of the Preston Democratic Town Committee. “It’s so much more rewarding to actually knock on doors and talk to people in person. People don’t know much about local elections, so it’s a real opportunity to connect with people and educate them.” 

According to Statchen, phone banking has been far more productive than in past campaigns. 

“You have to fight to find any sort of silver lining, but I think I’ve had more engaging conversations with voters over the phone, and they’ve been more probing questions than I normally get at the door, which I love,” Statchen said. “It’s good debate prep.” 

While Statchen volunteers could easily make phone calls from home, they’ve chosen instead to gather in backyards with chairs six feet apart, all making separate phone calls at once. 

“It’s like working out with a partner,” Vegliante said. “You lose motivation so quickly phone banking alone. It’s also great to have other people around to commiserate when a call doesn’t go well.” 

That social aspect of campaigning has also been a priority for incumbent State Sen. Heather Somers, Statchen’s opponent. 

“During the pandemic, It’s been tough to have the campaign comradery that you would normally have,” Somers said. “It’s just not on the same scale as in the past because we can’t have as many people together in person. We’ve tried to do little things, like gathering to wave signs outside the debate or make a car parade, just to make it feel like this is a real campaign again.” 

“Typically, when you’re in the legislature, you’re finished in May,” Somers said. “But right now, it feels busier than it’s ever been, especially because I’m on the Public Health Committee. Working full time while trying to manage a campaign has been difficult.”

Somers said that the shortened spring legislative session has made the fall a challenge for incumbents balancing work in Hartford and the campaign.

“Typically, when you’re in the legislature, you’re finished in May,” Somers said. “But right now, it feels busier than it’s ever been, especially because I’m on the Public Health Committee. Working full time while trying to manage a campaign has been difficult.”

Still, Somers has squeezed in some campaign events, and has continued to knock on doors, albeit with less regularity. 

“There haven’t been the same campaign events that I would normally attend as a candidate,” Somers said. “I would normally be at the fair, visiting assisted living centers, and meeting people where they are. It’s just very quiet as far as the interactions you have with the general public. It’s also difficult to knock on doors right now, because not everyone wants a stranger at their doorstep in the time of COVID.” 

19th District race

Steve Weir, the Republican candidate for the 19th District, has also knocked on doors during the pandemic. He is careful to wear a mask, and tries to keep a safe distance from voters while having conversations on their doorsteps. 

“I’m a first-time candidate, so as far as campaigning during COVID-19, this is all I know,” Weir said. “Knocking on doors always leads to the most meaningful interactions I ever get to have with voters, since they’re happening on their own turf. I’m always thankful when someone takes the time to talk to me.” 

Candidate Steve Weir talks to voters in person (CT Examiner/Elizabeth)

As he knocked on doors in Norwich, a town where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 and unaffiliated voters number almost half of the electorate, many appeared open to learning about Weir’s background and policies, but wary of voting for a Republican out of frustration with President Donald Trump. 

Glory Montes, a registered voter in Norwich, raised her concerns about the Trump administration after Weir mentioned his Republican affiliation. 

Weir said that he gets these questions often, and always makes sure to emphasize the difference between local and national politics. 

“You can vote for a Democrat for president and for me for State Senate,” Weir told Montes. “I’m not the president, and the president’s never called me for advice. I’m running for State Senate because I’m a small business owner frustrated with our high tax rates who wants my kids to be able to afford to live in Connecticut.” 

Candidate Steve Weir talks to voters (and their dogs) in person (CT Examiner/Elizabeth)

Weir’s opponent, four-time Democratic incumbent State Sen. Cathy Osten, has also continued to canvass, but she said that other aspects of the campaign have severely limited her in-person interactions. 

“This campaign has felt different because everything is closed down,” Osten said. “I go to a lot of things in the towns I represent – every student event, every play, every fundraiser. That’s how I get to meet people. With none of that going on this year, it’s a little bit harder.” 

Both Osten and Weir use registered voter databases to determine which houses to approach. In Norwich, Osten focused her efforts on houses with registered Democrats. Weir knocked on doors of registered voters regardless of party. 

State Sen. Cathy Osten knocks on doors in Norwich (CT Examiner/Elizabeth)

Asked whether she feels safe interacting in-person with strangers as cases rise across the state, Osten contested the premise. 

“I don’t consider them strangers,” Osten said. “I work for them. If people started saying they weren’t comfortable with me stopping by, I would stop door-knocking in person, but until then, I want to connect with my constituents in person.”   

As she knocked on doors in Norwich, Osten’s constituents don’t appear to consider her a stranger, either. Osten began to give her pitch to one voter who opened her door, but she was interrupted. 

“I know you, and you have my vote,” said Brynn Dougherty, a registered Democrat who knows Osten’s daughter and sister. “Thank you for all that you do.” 

Cathy Osten knocks on doors in Norwich (CT Examiner/Elizabeth)

Osten said these in-person connections are vital. 

“I stopped at one woman’s house, and asked her how she was doing, and she’d just lost her husband,” Osten said. “They’d been married for 68 years, and now she was alone. She just wanted someone to talk to, and I think that’s what many people want most right now. I came in and she showed me the shawls she’d been making for cancer patients, and we just connected. You can’t do that over the phone.”

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