Courtesy of his campaign Facebook page

Candidates using Connecticut’s public campaign finance system to challenge well-established opponents are up against a tighter timeline this year. Voters begin casting absentee ballots on Oct. 2 and some candidates are just now receiving grants.

The Citizens Election Program awards state house candidates who can raise $5,300 in small donations with up to $30,575 in campaign funding. The system is designed to keep special interest money from picking winners in state races and it’s a good deal for candidates looking to run competitive races against better funded opponents.

But qualifying is no simple task for first-time campaigns. In addition to meeting the donation thresholds, candidates must work with election regulators at the State Elections Enforcement Commission to verify the identity of each donor.

This year, the clock is ticking.

“It’s frustrating,” said Stephen Samela, a Democrat running for state representative in Naugatuck. Samela had his grant approved last Wednesday.

“In a normal year, we’ve got a month left, that’s a decent amount of time. But now we’re definitely—not scrambling, but we’re in that get out the vote mode at the end of September, which is kind of odd, rather than at the end of October,” he said in a phone interview.

Samela acknowledged he lacks the local name recognition of his opponent Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, a Republican from Naugatuck who was elected during a special election in 2009 and has run unopposed since.

“People might not even know that this is even a contested seat right now,” he said. “This money is incredibly important for us to get our message out.”

The campaign designed mailers while waiting on the funding to be approved and he hoped to get them in the mail this week. He said they have leaned on digital ads, which are cheaper than mailers, made calls and knocked on doors. He’s hoping they have a chance to make use of the new funds before voters mail their ballots in.

“Even though people are doing absentee ballots we’re going to run right through to the end. We’re going to have more than one mailer. We’re going to try to use it in as efficient a way as possible. Get as much as we can out of it in a short period of time,” he said.

Caleb Espinosa, a Repubublican from Montville running for state representative, was approved for his grant last Monday. He agreed that this year posed unique challenges. He said it requires candidates to get creative with their campaign tactics.

“If you run a traditional campaign this cycle, because of the pandemic, you’re going to fall behind the ball, I believe. Even if you got your grant in July. It’s all about hitting voters in a different way,” he said.

Like Samela, Espinosa is running against a well-established candidate, Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville. Espinosa said his campaign focused its money on digital ads and bolstering its social media presence. He does not put much stock in the efficacy of traditional mailers.

“Quite frankly, when I was younger, I’d see my mom and my pop get these mailers in the mail. Most people what they do with mailers is they kind of glance at it, front and back, then chuck it,” he said.

Courtesy of his campaign Facebook page

Despite the pandemic, Espinosa has been out knocking on doors, trying to engage voters. He said he wears a mask and keeps as much distance as possible.

“I have hand sanitizer bottles. So I give you a palm card and a hand sanitizer bottle, so everyone is safe. I still believe in knocking on voters’ doors, especially for older folks who don’t really have social media,” he said. “I think the hand sanitizer is a nice little touch.”

With his grant money approved, Espinosa is banking on smaller postcards, which he’s hoping to have mailed out to voters before Oct. 2. He said the cards will have links to his website and his Facebook account where he’s uploaded multimedia content like videos. He also plans to have some large yard signs made up, some T-shirts printed for his volunteers, and he plans to rent an RV to drive around the district.

“If you get a little creative you can figure out ways to get your name out there,” he said. “It’s all about word of mouth. It echoes.”