In western Colorado, Democratic campaigns play it safe with COVID-19

In 2018, when Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush ran to represent southern and western Colorado in Congress, the strategy in Delta County was “knock, knock.”

“We probably hit 5,000 doors,” said Debbie Fisk, the chair of the Democratic Party in the deep-red county of about 30,000 residents.

Mitsch Bush lost that year but is back on the ballot facing Republican newcomer Lauren Boebert. This time, though, there’s a highly infectious respiratory disease debilitating the country, and so for Fisk’s volunteers outreach looks vastly different.

“It’s been the worst nightmare of our lives, reaching voters,” she said. “It’s really hard not to door-knock and get stuff done. We’re having to rely on postcards, calling, emailing people. But it’s an uphill battle in our county as it is, just being a Democrat.”

Fisk spoke to The Denver Post Friday at a parking lot in Grand Junction where the Joe Biden presidential campaign bus — minus the actual candidate — was in town for a drive-up voter engagement event. Over the course of about 90 minutes, roughly three dozen cars showed up, with drivers grabbing signs and buttons. A few parked to take pictures with the bus and a cardboard cutout of Biden and his running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

For Democrats in the pandemic, this is what a ground game looks like — cautious, masked and only rarely in person. Throughout Colorado, they have generally taken this approach, relying particularly heavily this year on mailers, text- and phone-banking, Zoom events and television commercials. Democrats have severely limited face-to-face interaction with voters, while the Trump campaign and some other Republicans have doubled down on in-person canvassing.

“We want to be safe and alive come 2021,” said Judee O’Neal, a Grand Junction Democrat who attended the bus event Friday.

Twenty-four hours earlier and about an hour down the road, Mitsch Bush’s opponent held a meet-and-greet campaign event at a park in Collbran that might as well have taken place in a different universe. Most people did not wear masks. Many shook hands, and some hugged. Groups dined on barbecue at picnic tables as Boebert, who describes mask-wearing as a personal choice, spoke about various assaults she perceives on citizen freedoms.

An attendee, Glen Denton, said one thing he likes about Boebert is that she defied public health orders by reopening her restaurant in May for in-person diners.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis “having the right to shut down the state — we’re done with it,” said another Boebert supporter, Kris Melnikoff.

But the pandemic is not done with America. And Democrats in this part of the state, as elsewhere in the country, aren’t taking risks. All official Mitsch Bush campaign events are virtual.

“We had 74 cases the day before yesterday. That’s 30 more than the highest number we’ve had since the beginning,” said Chuck McDaniel, who suspects he’s the only member of the Grand Junction City Council who votes Democratic. “It’s happening because people really stopped paying attention to the rules.”

The big question is if and how the 3rd District candidates’ different approaches to pandemic campaigning will affect their ability to win support and build enthusiasm.

“I think the people who feel like public health is important are going to support what the Democrats are doing, and I don’t think that the Boebert effort will affect many people beyond their own echo chamber,” McDaniel said.

Democrats at the Grand Junction bus event said they hope the fact that their candidates are leading by example, while Republicans like Boebert and President Donald Trump openly disregard public health guidance, will pay off Nov. 3.

“This is pretty much a Republican stronghold, but the enthusiasm that I’ve seen has been exceptional,” said Dan Lochner at the bus event. “A lot more people for Biden, and against Trump. Probably against Trump, as much as anything.”

Still, he and other Democrats in Mesa County, where statehouse seats are as safely red as Denver seats are safely blue, acknowledge concern about the impact of pandemic precautions on races like Mitsch Bush’s. The county Democratic Party chair, Maria Keenan, has been stuffing envelopes and distributing yard signs in lieu of traditional rallies and canvassing.

“People have to appreciate that we’re trying to do something here,” she said. “We need to pass change. I would love to see some of my Democratic candidates win their elections, but if they don’t, at least we tried.”

For now, that means events like Friday’s — sparsely attended and minimally exciting, but respectful of public health guidance and personal safety.

“This is the best they’re gonna do,” said Lochner, whose cousin was on a ventilator earlier this year. “We’ve got to realize that this pandemic is very serious. A lot of people have died.”

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