- Stephen Smith, a rookie campaigner running in West Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, has turned his field operation into a “coronavirus crisis response team.”
- Smith, 40, already broke US Sen. Joe Manchin’s record for both small and individual contributions to a WV gubernatorial campaign, and boasts a roster of more than 90 down ballot allies under the movement West Virginia Can’t Wait.
- He’s a Harvard grad who returned to the Mountain State after spending his high school years in Texas and early organising career in Chicago.
- Now, he’s trying to oust Republican Gov. Jim Justice and flip West Virginia blue as the coronavirus confines the campaign online.
- “Right now – and I think this is increasingly true across the country – West Virginia isn’t a red or a blue state,” Smith told Insider. “We’re a state that’s fed up with the establishment of both parties.”
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With no doors to knock on or hands to shake, Stephen Smith is taking his West Virginia gubernatorial campaign in a different direction.
The 40-year-old Democrat already broke US Sen. Joe Manchin’s 2005 record for most small donations in a Mountain State run for Charleston’s corner office. Smith also broke the record for most individual donations last month.
Now, Smith is channeling that grassroots energy by flipping his field operation into a “coronavirus crisis response team.”
He still has a primary race to compete in, with voting day moved to June 9, but Smith told Insider that making his campaign’s resources available for those struggling from the coronavirus is the current priority.
“It’s kind of incredible and radical and beautiful that, I think, we caught on to what was going on fairly early, and decided to act boldly and quickly,” Smith said in a phone interview Monday. “And what that looked like was a comprehensive coronavirus resource web page that was up on our campaign website before the state of West Virginia had its own website.”
His campaign has 305 “neighbourhood captains” across the state who aim to contact around 100 neighbours per week to check in on what they need: food, masks, transportation, help with unemployment insurance, and even assistance with getting registered to vote absentee.
Five days after Smith’s campaign launched its coronavirus site, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told constituents to “go to Bob Evans and eat” as he downplayed the severity of the pandemic.
Justice’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
Smith grew up in the capital city of Charleston before moving to Texas for his high school years, going on to graduate from Harvard University. He then moved to Chicago for his early career before heading back to the Mountain State to raise his family.
While he may not have the region’s accent or boast the flare of fellow WV Democrat Richard Ojeda ‘s swole campaign videos, Smith is running on an anti-establishment platform, refusing PAC money or corporate donations.
“Right now – and I think this is increasingly true across the country – West Virginia isn’t a red or a blue state,” Smith told Insider. “We’re a state that’s fed up with the establishment of both parties.”
While there has been little polling on the race, Smith has outraised his two closest competitors by far, according to the latest filings, and has been the subject of national coverage in The New Yorker, Yahoo! News and The Intercept.
He’s also aligned with more than 90 down ballot candidates taking part in West Virginia Can’t Wait, a pro-labour reform group that has candidates take a pledge to reject corporate money, refuse to cross picket lines, and pledge to never avoid debating opponents.
“2018 was a perfect example of this,” Smith said. “There were three congressional seats up for election, obviously, and there were viable challengers in every race and there were zero debates – zero general election debates – not one in three races did the two people get in the same place and answer questions.
Smith had already pledged to donate at 10% of his campaign fundraising total back into West Virginia communities, but he said the coronavirus outreach will far exceed that.
“What matters most is – people have heard every string of words that a politician can say – it’s more about what we do.”
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