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Amid COVID, the primary election night party tradition is scrambled 

Monitor staff
Published: 9/8/2020 3:27:26 PM

The story of the New Hampshire presidential primary last February could be told through the victory parties.

Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, two candidates on both sides of the ideological spectrum, held raucous events, packed with supporters whose excitement grew audibly as the results for the one-time front-runners got better. The two placed first and second.

The results party for Joe Biden – who struggled in the Granite State – was far more muted, marked by somber conversations, a near-empty conference room, and the telling absence of Joe Biden himself, who had flown to South Carolina. Biden placed fifth that night.

In the grand scheme of years-long campaigns, election night parties are hardly significant indicators of success. But for decades, they’ve been the unmissable final events to solidify momentum into the general election for the winners or cap off accomplishments and attempt to comfort the rest.

And this week, campaigns are having to improvise.

As the threat of the COVID-19 virus persists, candidates for state and federal office in the state primary Tuesday are opting for a range of celebration styles for the big night.

Democratic state senator and gubernatorial hopeful Dan Feltes is planning an election night party – albeit a socially distanced one – outside in a parking lot. The event will be held just behind 189 North State Street, near the Concord Mosque, the campaign said, and limited to a smaller group of staff and supporters.

Feltes’s opponent Andru Volinsky, by contrast, will be having a smaller event at his headquarters in Concord. The event will be limited to campaign staff on account of the virus, but it will be live-streamed into a virtual election night party, the campaign told the Monitor.

The Sununu campaign is not holding a primary night party, campaign spokesman Ben Vihstadt said. Sununu faces primary opponent Karen Testerman and the Keene Libertarian “Nobody”; in his previous re-election effort he was unopposed.

Meanwhile, three Republican campaigns are merging for an event more reminiscent of pre-pandemic time: a joint results party in the DoubleTree Hotel on Manchester’s Elm Street.

The campaigns for Matt Mowers, a candidate for the 1st Congressional District, and Corky Messner, who hopes to challenge Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for U.S. Senate, will join up with the presidential re-election campaign for Donald Trump on Tuesday night at the hotel. Trump has endorsed both candidates in the primary.

As campaigns put in final preparations for voting day, their schedules over the weekend were a mix of the familiar and the innovative.

Both Feltes and Volinsky have eschewed the New Hampshire tradition of door knocking in their race for governor, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of transmission to voters. But that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned in-person campaigning altogether.

Volinsky and his campaign staff attended a string of farmers markets across the state over the weekend, his campaign said. He attended a virtual Labor Day rally Monday that included a high-profile boost from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he planned to stop by polling stations in Manchester, Nashua and Concord, his home voting district.

Feltes, meanwhile, held a few in-person “Donuts with Dan” events – socially distanced outdoor house parties in Amherst, Londonderry, Merrimack and Nashua, and toured the solar panels of the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire in Dover as part of a swing to promote his clean energy plan.

For his part, Messner organized business meetings, voter events and “sign wavings” across the state.

And all campaigns were busy plugging away at remote efforts that pre-date the pandemic, like mass texting campaigns and phone banks.

Still, for many campaign staffers, the reality is inescapable: 2020 is a wildcard for all. With few face-to-face opportunities, campaigns were often thrown onto the same unfamiliar playing field.

“If you can win a campaign in COVID, you can win a campaign any time.” said Krysten Copeland, communications advisor for Andru Volinsky.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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