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West Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race Confronts the Coronavirus

By Evan Osnos at The New Yorker

Stephen Smith, a Democrat running for governor of West Virginia, was meeting voters in the Shenandoah Valley the other day, when he first encountered people holding back their handshakes. “They were sort of joking about it,” he told me. They said, “Can we just do this?” offering a wave or an elbow bump, in lieu of a shake. By the following evening, when Smith held another event, the jokes had given way to polite vigilance. “There was someone watching the buffet to make sure people used utensils instead of their hands,” he said.

Around the country, in campaigns up and down the ballot, candidates have abandoned public events for the foreseeable future, in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19. (Smith’s town halls will now be online.) On Sunday night, the Democratic debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was held with no studio audience. Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana postponed their Presidential primaries, as did Ohio, on Monday night—hours before the vote was scheduled to take place on Tuesday. (The three other primaries scheduled for Tuesday—in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois—are proceeding.)

In addition to altering the political logistics, the virus has already begun to exert larger, less predictable pressures on the politics themselves, in a historic campaign year. Smith’s race is a case in point. He is a forty-year-old West Virginia native, who graduated from Harvard and returned to his home state to work as a community organizer. In his first run for office—against the incumbent Republican governor, Jim Justice, who happens to be the richest man in the state—Smith has put more than a candidate’s usual emphasis on meeting voters face to face. He has renounced corporate donations and travelled, at least twice, to each of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties, to recruit more than ninety other candidates to run for office, under the banner of a movement that calls itself “West Virginia Can’t Wait.” By mid-March, his campaign had broken the state record for individual contributions in a governor’s race, a mark previously held by Joe Manchin, now a U.S. Senator.

But the coronavirus has brought Smith’s face-to-face campaign to a halt. His campaign has turned its focus, for the moment, to publicizing health information, and its volunteers are circulating a petition calling on the governor to take bolder steps, including expanding testing, instituting voting by mail, and barring utilities from suspending service to customers who fall behind on payments during the crisis. Whatever the effect on his election prospects, Smith cites the coronavirus as prime evidence of the issues at the heart of his candidacy—the radically unequal risks facing Americans with varying levels of savings and health-care protection and different capacities for absorbing a shock to the economy.

“It’s not just inequality of wealth or income; it’s also the inequality of pain,” he said. “The people who have the most bear the least, and the people who have the least bear the most. During a crisis, that is especially true.”

A study published last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation calculated that West Virginia has a higher share of adults who are considered at risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus than any other state, because it has an older population and high rates of smoking, heart disease, and diabetes. An estimated fifty-one per cent of the state’s adult population is considered at risk from the virus—according to the study, that’s twenty percentage points greater than in Washington, D.C….