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‘Zoom-bombing’ prevention and socially distanced porch parties: How the pandemic has changed political fundraising in Maryland

Del. Heather Bagnall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, held a virtual Halloween-themed fundraising event in October.
Del. Heather Bagnall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, held a virtual Halloween-themed fundraising event in October.

Delays with screen sharing. People forgetting they’re not muted. Untimely interruptions.

It’s not just in your office meetings: they’re in political fundraisers too. Welcome to 2020.

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The technical glitches aside, the coronavirus pandemic has forced political candidates in the state to be creative with their fundraising efforts, which are key to successful campaigns. And though November’s election has passed, General Assembly members are furiously raising money ahead of the legislative session in January, during which they can’t do so.

Yvette Lewis, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the party has adjusted to virtual fundraising remarkably well, despite a learning curve at the beginning. Events are now more accessible in many ways, she said.

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Politicians and experts agree that the shift to online events won’t go away after the pandemic passes.

“You no longer have to take time driving to Annapolis or Baltimore for an event and maybe even get a babysitter,” Lewis said. “You can just open Zoom on your laptop, and be wearing sweatpants from the waist down.”

Take, for example, Del. Heather Bagnall’s “Howloween Spooktacular” Zoom fundraising event in October. After series of photos and videos of the Anne Arundel Democrat at political events, a familiar tune kicked in over black letters in a spooky font.

“If it’s something weird and it don’t look good. Who you going to call? Delegate Bagnall!”

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Bagnall welcomed the group, then warned against potential “Zoom bombers.”

“Costumes are optional, clothing is not. Please make sure that we don’t have to turn off your video.”

Participants submitted prerecorded videos, including “Addams Family” spoofs, in support of Bagnall. The event also had a virtual photo booth and a pumpkin carving contest.

These sorts of events have become the norm — and could still have a presence even when it’s safe to gather in person again.

David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, thinks that post-pandemic, campaigns will use virtual events to complement in-person events. But in-person events will return, he said.

“The pandemic has created incentives for parties and candidates to further develop their online fundraising capabilities, especially for small donors,” Primo said. “That said, I do not think traditional fundraisers are going away, for the same reason that face-to-face business meetings won’t disappear. Part of the reason why many donors attend fundraisers is because they want to meet and socialize with a politician and other donors.

The coronavirus hasn’t only affected the logistics of fundraising. Given the economic hardships the pandemic has caused, many legislators who spoke with The Baltimore Sun agreed that they felt uncomfortable asking people for money. Some paused fundraising altogether or scaled it back.

But for newer General Assembly lawmakers, it’s hard to avoid — especially with a reelection campaign looming in 2022.

“Maybe for the average delegate or senator in a safer place, or someone who’s been an incumbent longer, it might not be as important. But certainly for us, it really is,” said Del. Michele Guyton, a first-term Democrat from Baltimore County. “I wish I weren’t. It’s my least favorite part of doing this work.”

“It feels obscene. But it also feels really, really essential,” said Bagnall, another first-term Democrat. “I’m so grateful that I’m here in this time. I do feel like I’m a voice people might not otherwise have.”

“The reality is that we have to keep asking. I have to be able to mount a competitive campaign,” she said. “The reality of 2022 looms large.”

Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Carroll County Republican in office since 2015, stopped fundraising during the pandemic. Shoemaker hates “shaking people down for money” generally, but virtual fundraising is even worse for him, especially when a lot of people are struggling economically, he said.

“You can’t even interact with folks who you’re asking to spend their hard-earned money in support of a campaign,” Shoemaker said. “If you can’t interact with them personally, the whole notion doesn’t sit well with me. I’d rather just wait until we get to a place ... when the vaccine comes out. Then we can go back to the pre-COVID era of having in-person fundraisers.”

In this environment, Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Prince George’s Democrat in office since 2011, paused organizing her virtual events, working more on an individual basis with traditional donors, she said.

“In this climate, I find it difficult to ask people for financial contributions, given all of the constraints and demands they have on their financial resources,” Valentino-Smith said.

In Maryland, funding for the 2020 presidential election cycle ballooned from 2016, with Democrats bringing in about $33.5 million and Republicans receiving about $7.75 million this year, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. In the 2016 cycle, Democrats raised about $19.7 million and Republicans raised about $4.6 million.

The Maryland Republican Party did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

In terms of the state Democratic Party, fundraising in 2020 was up 54% compared to 2019, Lewis said, though she attributed that largely to it being a presidential year.

“Enthusiasm also contributed to this,” Lewis said. “People knew how important it was that we elected Joe as our president, Mayor Scott in Baltimore, and so many others.”

The 2020 fundraising results have been a mixed bag for General Assembly candidates.

Shoemaker has seen his fundraising numbers drop “precipitously” because he hasn’t held a fundraiser.

Bagnall’s fundraising is down about a third from last year, she said.

I hope to close that gap a bit before the session, especially as the focus shifts somewhat from the national landscape,” Bagnall said.

Del. Michael McKay, a Republican who represents Allegany and Washington counties, said his fundraising numbers have been the same as last year. Normally, he holds a golf tournament with a picnic after, for about 250 to 300 people.

McKay still opted to hold the tournament, but without a morning speaking event beforehand. There was no picnic and the golf course had everyone use single golf carts to help with social distancing, he said. The event got about the same amount of golfers as normal, he said.

He also held a social distancing porch party, complete with live music, at his home, which has a “very humongous” porch. He hired a company to disinfect the porch and apply germ deterrent and had tents outside.

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McKay served individually wrapped food and everyone — about 75 people — wore masks, he said. At any one time, there were no more than 30 people there.

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“It was just a way we could work within the parameters and keep everyone safe,” McKay said.

Guyton said one of her priorities was making sure people got something for what they were donating.

One of her events was an evening of “hope and gratitude” with music, and she matched donations to two charitable organizations: the Mental Health Association of Maryland and Student Support Network. Another event was an auction of holiday gifts, including creative “COVID-safe adventures.”

“That just felt a little better to me than raising money for my own campaign,” Guyton said. “The hardest part is raising money when people are hurting.”

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