When incumbent Rep. Josh Harder and challenger Ted Howze emerged from California’s March 3 primary election victorious, neither could have imagined that just a few weeks later the nation would be in the middle of a global pandemic. Now, their two campaigns have come to a screeching halt in order to ensure the 10th Congressional District is able to make it through the crisis.
Although coronavirus concerns have limited staffing in Stanislaus County’s Election Division, thus slowing the ballot counting process, workers continue to tally results. As of March 13, just over 103,000 ballots had been counted. According to Registrar of Voters Donna Linder, approximately 7,000 conditional and provisional ballots remain. In San Joaquin County, which is home to a portion of District 10, just over 44,000 ballots have been counted for the Congressional race. The official canvass period for the primary election was extended 21 days due to COVID-19, meaning results are due April 24.
The most recent results from the Secretary of State’s office show that Harder has captured 43.6 percent of the vote (63,006 votes), while Howze received 34.5 percent (49,916 votes). As the top two candidates in the race, both men will advance to the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Until then, Harder and Howze would have originally spent the next few months organizing volunteers to knock on doors — even canvassing themselves — and scheduling a slew of events that would help them meet District 10 constituents, promote their campaigns and secure support from the community. With social distancing guidelines in place and “stay at home” orders enacted throughout the state, however, those strategies are now a thing of the past.
“It feels like a lifetime ago,” Harder said of the primary election. “I can’t believe we had an election three weeks ago. It feels like so much has happened since then.”
Harder said that in lieu of his typical campaign events, which have included town hall events throughout the district and other methods of community outreach, he’s now laser-focused on his “day job” in the halls of Congress. Last week the House passed a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, and one of Harder’s bills that will provide tax credits to businesses that pay sick leave to employees out with COVID-19 was recently signed into law by the President.
“My biggest focus has been on making sure that we can deliver with the official side of this job, because I think that’s the most urgent need right now,” Harder said. “...on the economic side, I think folks are really hurting. If you’ve lost your job and are on unemployment or if you’re a small business owner and you’re thinking about how you can keep your business afloat without a whole lot of customers coming inside, those are the only concerns you should have right now and frankly, those are my biggest concerns, too.”
Back at home, Harder’s in-person town halls have transitioned to tele-town halls, where constituents can call in and ask questions of Harder, as well as various guests such as local public health officials. While the standard town halls typically drew in a couple hundred guests, tens of thousands of callers have dialed in to listen to recent telephone events. In addition, Harder’s campaign staff is using their time to give back, like last week when they served meals to veterans at the Salvation Army, and donors are directed to instead give funds to local nonprofits like United Way who could use the help during the pandemic.
“It’s frustrating to not be able to see folks given how much concern and fear there is out there,” Harder said.
For Howze, the pandemic came as a shock — especially since he decided to make a second run for Congress due to California’s primary shift, which meant he would have had more time to fundraise this time around before the November election. Now, instead of raising money, his focus is on helping the community.
He didn’t want to lay off his campaign staff, he said, so he’s putting them to work through a movement they’ve dubbed “Operation Compassion.” In the days since the pandemic hit California, Howze’s team has delivered essential products and food to hundreds of homebound seniors and veterans throughout the district. Most recently, Howze hosted a bread drive where community members could pass through in their cars and pick up some loaves for free. In collaboration with Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak, loaves were also distributed to the United Samaritans Foundation for their daily bread trucks. Next, Howze hopes to use his veterinary and community connections to organize a medical supply drive for local healthcare workers.
“We decided to use all of our manpower and woman power to get out and do philanthropic efforts at this time, be involved with our community and try to get as much help out as we can,” Howze said. “We’re focused solely on trying to do the best for our community that we can do, and we figure once this dies down, we’ll get back to traditional campaigning.”
Howze’s traditional campaign is in limbo, he emphasized, though his volunteers are still phone banking in between their community service. These days, they’re asking different questions instead of seeking support: What can we help you with? Are you in need of anything?
“It still forms good relationships,” Howze said. “People are going to remember that you tried to help them.”
With fundraising essentially on hold for both campaigns, Harder and Howze aren’t worried about the impact it could have on the race as COVID-19 tears through the country. Most recent Federal Election Commission data shows that as of Feb. 12, the Democratic incumbent had nearly $2.9 million in cash on hand while his Republican challenger had just over $172,000.
“Had it been a June primary again, I probably would not have run this time because I knew to run against a well-funded incumbent, we’d need the extra time to fundraise. All this disease has done is making it like it was a June primary,” Howze said. “I’m a football coach, so I just transition and make halftime adjustments...we’re going to go as hard as we can with whatever time we have left.”
Until November, Harder will continue spending time between the District 10 community and D.C., where representatives are crafting another coronavirus stimulus package.
Harder said he would like to see universal paid leave included in the next package, as well as more protective equipment for healthcare workers and free access to a coronavirus vaccine as soon as one is developed.
“I think that’s a no-brainer option. We need to make sure we're making that vaccine available as soon as possible,” he said. “I think that's legislation that could pass right now, even if it takes a while to develop a vaccine.”
Howze is concerned about farmers who may have been excluded from the $2 trillion stimulus package, and hopes to see protection for them included in the next piece of legislation. Disaster loans from the Small Business Administration granted through the package require applicants to have no more than $1 million in gross income, which many farmers exceed. In addition, Howze pointed out that farmers may not know whether or not they need to apply for a loan until they harvest many months from now.
“Agriculture is a high gross, low net industry...the SBA program is going to do nothing to help local ag — in fact, it’s locked out most of our people,” Howze said. “On the other hand, most have no idea what their product is going to bring in this fall when they harvest. Most of them are tied to foreign markets and shipping, so they may have a great harvest and no market to send it to.”
He would’ve voted “no” on the $2 trillion package, Howze added, as it includes many provisions which aren’t directed at helping the everyday working class.
“In principle, I’m for a lot of the ideas they were trying to achieve,” Howze said. “I think to soak the American people with this much pork going into a crisis is absolutely a joke, especially on our kids who are going to pay for it.”
Looking ahead to November, Howze expects the coronavirus crisis to inspire high voter turnout.
“There’s never been a greater distinction between the two parties in Washington, D.C. than now,” he said.
Harder never thought the second year of his first term would get started like this, he said, describing how legislators now sit yards apart from each other while seated in the House Chamber. The balcony is now used by members of Congress, rather than the usual reporters and photographers, and the room’s microphone and podium are sanitized in between speakers.
“It’s been a wild ride, that’s for sure. But, it’s in moments of crisis that we really understand what leaders are doing. More people are paying attention to what we’re trying to do now than anything else I’ve done over the last year,” Harder said. “That shows how important it is and we have to make sure we continue to deliver.”