Less than a week after Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in Montana in preparation for a coronavirus pandemic, response to the disease is having an impact on the campaigns of Bullock’s would-be successors. Most of those campaigns have now gone digital, with Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates using social media to interact with voters and spread word of the public health emergency.
Democratic candidate and current Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney tested negative for the virus last week and has opted to remain sequestered in his home. Cooney first posted about the disease on Facebook March 12, the same day Bullock issued his state of emergency declaration, and the candidate’s Facebook and Twitter feeds have since offered updates on the situation, including several videos from Cooney and his running mate, Casey Schreiner. The campaign has postponed all events for the time being.
“To further help ensure Montanans stay safe, and follow national guidelines about suspending large gatherings, my campaign is going to postpone our Meet Cooney-Schreiner Team Tour,” Cooney said in a Facebook post March 13. “I appreciate all of the supporters who have already made reservations for these events. You will be notified when they are rescheduled and your reservations honored.”
Democratic candidate Whitney Williams has also postponed all in-person campaign events, and issued a statement earlier this week urging Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton to conduct the 2020 primary election entirely by mail. Williams is continuing to campaign digitally, posting to Facebook about a weekend conference call with the Montana Medical Association Board of Trustees and hosting a “Cooking with Carol” Facebook Live event Tuesday night with her mother, former state Sen. Carol Williams. According to Cooney’s Facebook page, Williams also sent her primary opponent a batch of St. Patrick’s Day cookies.
“Friends, with cases confirmed yesterday and again today, COVID-19 has made its way to Montana,” Williams said in a March 14 post. “Be kind to one another. Help your neighbors like we always do. And follow CDC and public health officials guidance. A special thanks to our doctors, nurses and public health officials working round the clock for all of us.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Al Olszewski first posted about coronavirus on social media March 7, sharing the advice of U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams that hand-washing and avoiding crowded social functions are the best protective measures. According to an MTN News story by Mike Dennison, Olszewski was unconvinced as of March 13 that public events should be canceled. Olszewski has since posted a video via Facebook stating that recent cancelations of sporting events and closures of bars and restaurants are necessary. His campaign has postponed or canceled all events for the next three weeks, and over the next few days will be scheduling a series of virtual events for Facebook Live instead.
“We are transitioning our face-to-face grass roots campaign to a virtual grass roots campaign,” the Olszewski campaign said in an emailed statement. “The campaign will be following the [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines of staying in groups of 10 or less and we recommend that the rest of Montana take social distancing serious as there is not yet a cure for the COVID-19 virus.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Tim Fox began tweeting about coronavirus March 13, encouraging Montanans to “be kind to one another” and “help your neighbors.” On March 16, Fox issued a press release urging the state and federal governments to take measures to protect businesses, workers, and families during the emergency. That release included a request from Fox that the public “remain calm, take all appropriate cautions to remain healthy, and take particular care if you or a family member are among those most vulnerable to sickness.”
“The Fox Campaign moved quickly this week canceling nearly all campaign appearances through March and will be making the decision on April activities as the COVID-19 situation unfolds,” Fox’s campaign said in an emailed statement. “In the meantime, we are utilizing digital platforms to interact and communicate with voters.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte has posted twice to Facebook about coronavirus since March 16. The first post featured a link to a Montana Standard story on responses from the state’s congressional delegation and included Gianforte’s comment, “We need to act swiftly, but we’ve got to do it wisely as well, and I share the sense that we need to take the time to get it right and make sure we do it in a bipartisan way because the health of the American people is more important than partisan politics.” The second post was a link to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ coronavirus website. Gianforte’s campaign informed Montana Free Press Wednesday that it has canceled all events that include more than 10 people and will continue to monitor the situation. Gianforte’s campaign later added it was canceling all events “through at least early April.”
“As our nation and state confront the COVID-19 outbreak, I encourage folks to remain calm and take all necessary precautions as detailed by the CDC,” Gianforte said in an emailed statement. “We must slow the virus’ transmission and get off the curve to save lives. Listening to public health experts and helping those in need, as we do here in Montana, we’ll get through this together.”
This story was updated on March 20, 2020, to include the Gianforte campaign’s extension of event cancellations.