By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
VINELAND – The coronavirus and mandated social distancing has made this election season one of the most unusual in the history of New Jersey and the United States, yet candidates like Will Cunningham are continuing to find ways to make it meaningful for voters.
The Cumberland County native is running for New Jersey’s U.S. Representative District 2 seat held by Democrat-turned-Republican Jeff Van Drew. Even though he’s in a crowded Democratic primary field, Cunningham said the pandemic shows why he stands out among them.
Many around the country are facing financially perilous situations because of shelter-in-place, social distancing orders and the closures of many businesses, leaving many without incomes.
“I don’t have to imagine what that feels like,” Cunningham said. “I know exactly what they are going through. I’m the only candidate in this race that can relate to what they are facing.”
Cunningham’s time experiences homelessness as a teenager when his mother lost her job has long been part of his narrative, even when he ran the first time against Van Drew two years ago in the Congressional Democratic primary.
He told Front Runner New Jersey last week his campaign has shifted to reflect the needs of the community as the primary closes in on June 2. His virtual town hall last Thursday with Yvette Badu-Nimako, a former Capitol Hill legislative director, and former Obama White House staffer Lauren Sarkesian is one of the events that the campaign has created to make the election real for voters.
“The campaign has become a resource of sorts for people who are just trying to keep food on the table,” Cunningham said. “We’re giving them guidelines and information on benefits and opportunities. This past Thursday we did a virtual town hall going over the various packages and what people are eligible for as they try to make sense of all of this.”
Using His Network
Cunningham, a former staffer for former presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, said he was able to call on friends he has made to Capitol Hill to help his potential constituents get the formation they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If I have the opportunity to use my network to help people here, I will,” Cunningham said. “Bringing people and resources to the district is what I do.”
Cunningham admits that the race has taken on dimensions few have anticipated. In-face campaigning has given way to phone banking, Facebook groups, Twitter messages and live streaming.
“We need to keep people informed that there is a primary coming up,” Cunningham said. “We don’t know if the election will be completely done by mail. If that’s the case, it becomes a different type of campaign. It would be unprecedented and the most convenient campaign it has ever been.
Speaking Directly to COVID-19 Challenges
“People are going to continue experience hardship as this continues,” Cunningham said. “I’m the only candidate who can speak directly to that. It means direct mail. It means getting online a lot more. I have a strong volunteer base across the district and we have already started phone banking telling voters why my campaign is the best for South Jersey.
The Democratic field is challenging. You have college professor Brigid Harrison, who has won favor with the many of the powerful Democratic leaders in the state, along with Amy Kennedy, wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and the iconic Kennedy political family.
One African-American in the race, Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, dropped out of the Congressional race a month ago. West Cape May councilman John Francis, another African-American, continues to run.
Cunningham pushed back on the notion that phone banking and other online methods may challenge candidates to reach beyond their own established base of supporters.
“We have access to the New Jersey voter files and we know who the most active primary voters are,” Cunningham said. “We know who we can bring off the sidelines and be compelled to vote. Our phone banks are solely devoted to expanding the base.”
While the June 2 appears to be holding up, it also appears to becoming a second version of “Super Tuesday,” Cunningham said.
As many as 11 states could hold their primary on June 2. New Jersey was already set for that date along with the District of Columbia, Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota. Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have all moved their primaries to that day.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Saturday, though, he “would be stunned” if New Jersey’s primary stayed on that date.
“I wish I could speak to some certainty about [the date],” Cunningham said. “The problem is that the presidential primary has not been decided yet. June 2 is starting to feel like another Super Tuesday. If that’s the case, it would be great for New Jersey to be a part of that. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the full devastation of this disease in New Jersey yet.”
Regardless, Cunningham said his campaign is active now in trying to build some steam in these unusual election times.
“Right now, we are trying to build momentum,” he said. “People who believe in my campaign will have to start convincing their networks and create a snowball effect. It starts now and I hope it peaks June 1.”
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