NASHVILLE — Glad-handing is definitely out. So are crowds, most public appearances and certainly in-person political campaign fundraisers.

So what's a Tennessee candidate running for the U.S. Senate or other down-ballot contest to do in the midst of the coronavirus, the worst health crisis to hit the nation in a century?

Welcome to the 2020 election's virtual campaign.

Unable to hold physical events, attend local gatherings or engage in most traditional shoe-leather-like methods of reaching out to party faithful in their respective party primaries, many Tennessee Republican and Democratic candidates are turbo-charging their efforts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

They're also enlisting radio and hosting video or teleconferences and often inviting the public to weigh in with calls or online during question-and-answer sessions.

In Aug. 6 contested races ranging from local school board to state party primaries for the Tennessee Legislature, Congress and U.S. Senate, candidates share a common foe on the campaign trail — COVID-19.

"Normal people aren't paying attention to a race that's four months away," said Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor and once-chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tennessee. "In normal circumstances you're trying to find and communicate with that 1 to 5% that are paying attention."

"But," Syler added, "this is the time that candidates normally use to work small groups, hold fundraisers and find volunteers for their efforts," and the coronavirus has become a factor.

While the main mechanism for reaching voters continues to be television advertising, especially for congressional and statewide candidates, campaigns do have challenges, according to Syler, who has presented the issue to students in a campaign-management class he's now teaching online.

"You got even less people paying attention" and the pressure on campaigns "just continues to build. The other thing is the messaging. What do you do right now when suddenly an issue you weren't even thinking about is now taking 90% of people's attention?"

For example, the main focus of Hamilton Countians on Friday became a visit by Gov. Bill Lee as he prepares a response to the pandemic across Tennessee.


The campaign COVID-19 pivot

Candidates in a number of contests are already adjusting to find routes into the public's consciousness.

"We'd been traveling all over the state, you can't do that any more," U.S. Senate Republican candidate Bill Hagerty told the Times Free Press on Friday. "It's impacted every aspect of the campaign."

Hagerty, a wealthy businessman who served as President Donald Trump's ambassador to Japan and has the president's full-throated endorsement, said that in response to the deadly tornadoes that swept Middle Tennessee in March, his campaign had already moved to "re-position" in areas including donating blood with staffers reaching out to shut-ins and offering to do food and pharmacy runs.

"The coronavirus thing, it's just sort of sucked all the oxygen out of the room with respect to the media, it's drawn everybody's attention, I think," Hagerty said of tornado recovery efforts.

That said, Hagerty also has his eyes on the coronavirus. The candidate said he had a "terrific telehealth town hall" with Dr. Jeffrey Balser, a physician and dean of Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine on Thursday. Balser, Hagerty noted, discussed "what he's seeing trying to run what is essentially the epicenter of dealing with the virus, at least in this part of the state."

His GOP primary rival, Manny Sethi, a Vanderbilt University trauma surgeon, has pivoted as well and has been fielding calls from concerned Tennesseans in his teleconferences.

"We're in uncharted waters," said Sethi, noting that his decadelong experience as a trauma surgeon has prepared him for that because "you never know what's coming at you and you have to be ready to change."

Before the outbreak, Sethi said, "we were running around Tennessee doing events, meeting thousands of people. Now, we've really effectively transitioned to a format online and talking about coronavirus and issues voters really care about.

"I feel like on the one hand we're campaigning but on the other providing a public service," Sethi said.

Both men are also attacking China's communist government. The virus originated in China's Wuhan province.

Another physician candidate in the GOP primary, Dr. George Flinn of Memphis, has also turned his attention to the coronavirus, fielding viewers' emails and answering their questions in a recent online livestream event.

And in a news release, Flinn also focused on the "good, bad, and ugly" of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, criticizing people who don't engage in social distancing, not to mention lambasting members of Congress alleged to have sold stock holdings after receiving COVID-19 briefings before stock markets plummeted.

"These actions, if proven true, are not only unfair but also illegal according to federal law and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Flinn said in a statement.

In Democrats' U.S. Senate primary, attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler stated in a Facebook post last week that "Coronavirus has highlighted one of Tennessee's biggest challenges: closed rural hospitals. Since launching my #tnsen campaign at a shuttered hospital in McKenzie, 3 more have closed. Tennessee must expand Medicaid to help. Have closures impacted you? Share your story ."

And on Friday, another U.S. Senate Democratic candidate, Marquita Bradshaw, invited Facebook friends to join a "virtual grassroots rally" involving not just her but artists and others.

"Even with COVID-19 going on, our climate is still in crisis, schools are still underfunded, healthcare access is lacking, and our criminal justice system is still incarcerating people on a massive scale," the post stated.

In state Senate District 10, incumbent Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, faces Chattanooga Police Department Assistant Chief Glenn Scruggs, a Democrat, in the Nov. 3 general election.

Gardenhire, who is seeking a third term, said the coronavirus is "really slowing down" his customary approach to campaigning. At the same time, the senator noted, he and other incumbent legislators are prohibited from raising campaign cash until May 15 because they have only recessed and not formally ended their annual session.

"That puts me at a disadvantage to my opponent," Gardenhire said, noting the pandemic and Lee's stay-at-home order issued last Thursday "really stops" a "lot of the personal contact and meetings and exposure I'd get" in a normal campaign year. "This is going to slow that process down."

Gardenhire also said he traditionally does "heavy, heavy door-to-door knocking" in the district that includes portions of Hamilton and Bradley counties. He believes people could be reluctant to answer the doors even after the crisis, which is now projected to peak around June 20, passes.

But he said those issues also confront Scruggs and added, "I have a record I can stand on, some people don't like it but some people do. I think I've shown I can get things done in the district." In the meantime, Gardenhire said, he is volunteering at a local food bank.

Scruggs said the pandemic has already prompted his campaign "to reshuffle some things" and move away from "door-knocking events."

"We recently had a [teleconference] town hall," Scruggs told the Times Free Press, noting it included three additional guests "to discuss the repercussions of COVID-19. We've figured out creative ways to still reach out to voters."

None of this comes as a surprise to MTSU's Syler. Noting "necessity is the mother of invention," Syler said, "the coronavirus has changed the way many of us go about our lives. Candidates have also had to be innovative and adjust how they they organize, fundraise and communicate.

"I expect campaigning will pretty much return to normal after the crisis," he added. "But don't be surprised if some of the innovations stick around."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.