Texas candidates in November’s general election are grappling with whether to hold in-person campaign events as safety concerns about COVID-19 persist.
Their decisions could make or break a candidate in a close contest, where every vote is critical.
The coronavirus pandemic forced most candidates to campaign and raise money in a virtual arena that includes video chats, text messaging, telephones calls and direct mail.
But in-person campaigning, which used to feature strong handshakes, selfie pics and baby kissing, is considered by most politicos as the most effective way to reach the hearts and minds of voters. So with less than two months before the election, whether to risk returning to the in-person campaign trail is one of the most important questions facing candidates, especially when November’s elections won’t offer voters the option of skipping scrolling the entire ballot and voting solely along party lines.
“Every candidate has to have set procedures and protocols in place as to how to protect everybody,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who has managed numerous Texas campaigns.
Turner said candidates used to not only hold rallies and knock on the doors, but aggressively meet voters near polling places during the early voting period and on Election Day. He said one of his campaign staples was to stand near a high-traffic polling place to greet and shake hands with voters.
“Obviously you can’t do that now,” Turner said of the personal contact, but added that candidates would likely find a way to reach voters — even in-person — in a “safe and responsible way.”
“It’s an important part of the process,” Turner said of greeting voters at the polls.
Some Republicans, perhaps inspired by President Donald Trump’s large rallies, are contacting voters in person and where they live. And some Democrats, particularly those in swing districts, are campaigning in person as well.
Candidates and campaign workers say they are staying 6 feet away from voters and wearing masks when knocking on doors. Some voters resist interacting with field workers, while others welcome the discussions, according to several campaign managers who conducted field operations.
The question on whether to start in-person campaigning has sparked a feud between Congressional District 24 candidates Beth Van Duyne and Candace Valenzuela. That contest is one of the most watched congressional races in the country. The swing district that includes the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth could be decided by a few votes, so how the candidates campaign is important.
Van Duyne, a Republican and former Irving mayor, has been interacting with people for much of her campaign, even with the ongoing pandemic. Van Duyne believes that it’s her duty as a candidate to safely try to interact with voters, given that she’s seeking public office.
In a recent tweet, she jabbed at Valenzuela for not holding in-person events.
“Even Joe Biden, who has barely left his basement in months, is out campaigning now,” Van Duyne tweeted. “But Candace Valenzuela continues to hide behind her computer screen and refuses to meet people face-to-face where they live, work, and make North Texas stronger.”
Even Joe Biden, who has barely left his basement in months, is out campaigning now. But Candace Valenzuela continues to hide behind her computer screen and refuses to meet people face-to-face where they live, work, and make North Texas stronger.
— Beth Van Duyne (@Bethvanduyne) September 17, 2020
Valenzuela lives in a multi-generational home with a 71-year-old mother-in-law and two children with respiratory issues. Her campaign events are all virtual and her volunteers don’t knock on doors.
Geoffrey Simpson, Valenzuela’s campaign manager, accused Van Duyne of being “reckless” with the health of North Texans. He said she supported Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to reopen Texas, a move that was followed by a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Once again, Beth Van Duyne is demonstrating how reckless she is when it comes to North Texans’ health,” he said. “She cheered when Texas reopened without a plan, causing a huge spike in cases, but now she’s attacking a mother of two young children for doing the right thing to keep her family and community healthy and safe. Candace knows we need to get back to work as soon as possible, but not at the expense of people’s health and safety. Beth Van Duyne is losing this race and these are just desperate attacks from a dishonest politician.”
Van Duyne said she has enjoyed meeting with voters and recognized the need to do it safely. And she said she wants an in-person debate with Valenzuela, and won’t debate her virtually.
“I’m honored that thousands of folks across the district have welcomed me into their homes and neighborhoods to talk about how we get North Texans working again, our schools up and running, and ensure we have strong public safety for our families,” she said. “From the beginning, this has been the strength of our campaign — speaking directly with people where they live, and work, and hearing how they are making North Texas stronger. This is what public service is about, being with people, meeting with them on their turf, and then finding solutions together.”
For many candidates, the tone for the next few weeks is being set by the presidential contenders.
Trump is holding large campaign rallies where the majority of people attending are not wearing masks. Over the weekend the president’s campaign schedule included events in Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio. And his surrogates, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have had bus tours in selected Texas cities, including Bedford.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who for months held virtual events and stayed at his home in Delaware, is also holding in-person events. On Friday he gave a speech in Minnesota to a small audience. Masks were required.
With the presidential candidates on the trail in varying degrees, it could impact the in-person activity of down-ballot candidates.
“Generally speaking it is a good look for Republicans in particular to try to get out and have that human contact without seeming that they are flouting coronavirus sensibilities,” said conservative radio talk show host Mark Davis. “As long as those candidates are holding events that have masks and distancing, it’s a line that they can walk with some skill.”
Davis said Democrats would have to avoid being “too fearful and unwilling to engage” voters, especially if Republicans started physically reaching out to voters.
Davis, who in normal times routinely hosts in-person election events and political rallies, said the last big show he moderated was the Dallas County Republican Party’s Reagan Day Dinner before the pandemic took hold.
“The nature of campaigning itself may be changing,” Davis said. “But right now, there’s no substitute for in-person campaigning.”
In some down-ballot races, candidates are physically meeting voters because they can’t give the opponent a competitive advantage by restricting themselves to a computer.
In Texas House District 113 in eastern Dallas County, both candidates are knocking on doors and campaigning in person. Will Douglas, a pharmacist and Republican challenging incumbent Democrat Rhetta Bowers, has been campaigning in-person since August. On Saturday he joined staffers and volunteers for a “Super Saturday” block walk in Garland.
“We decided that we were going to do this in a safe and responsible way,” said Trevor Naglieri, campaign manager for Douglas. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Bowers, who won the seat in 2018, said she’s been safely doing in-person campaigning as well.
“As a representative, I have to talk to my voters and constituents,” Bowers said.
Like her opponent, Bowers was block walking with volunteers on Saturday.
Statewide, the Texas candidates for Senate have also adjusted their campaigning because of the pandemic.
Republican incumbent John Cornyn has made official visits to meet constituents across Texas. And he was on hand when Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made separate trips to Texas.
“He’s connecting with people all over the state,” said Cornyn campaign spokesman Travis Considine.
Considine said Cornyn would continue to campaign virtually and noted that the Texas Republican Party had volunteers canvassing neighborhoods.
“There will be no rallies,” he said.
Cornyn’s opponent, former Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar, is doing the bulk of her campaigning through virtual events. She has had in-person meetings with health officials or small business owners, but has done most of her campaigning through video chats, telephone calls, direct mail and other concepts that don’t require in-person contact with voters.
Hegar’s spokeswoman, Amanda Sherman, said Hegar and campaign officials are still evaluating if or when to resume in-person campaigning. Hegar’s team is not knocking on doors, she said.
“What if you knock on a door and someone is immune-compromised?” she asked. “We don’t want to do that.”
Sherman said virtual campaigning is working and has it benefits. While it takes effort to leave home and go to a campaign rally, it’s easy to connect to a virtual rally via computer, even as the kids or pets play in the background.
One of the biggest decisions candidates will have to make next month is whether to staff workers near polling locations to encounter voters. Working the polls is a tried-and-true tradition in politics. In down-ballot races where the candidates are unknown to many voters, placing a push card in someone’s hand during early voting and on Election Day could make the difference between getting or losing a vote.
Because of the pandemic, some candidates didn’t send volunteers to work the polls for safety concerns.
In the District 100 Texas House race runoff in July, state Rep. Lorraine Birabil decided against having volunteers work the polls on Election Day. But Dallas lawyer Jasmine Crockett, her opponent, had a robust voter turnout program, complete with poll workers and rides to voting locations. She erased Birabil’s large lead after early voting to win the Democratic primary.
Despite her loss, Birabil said last week that her decision was based on safety and science and she would make the same decision again if the circumstances called for it.
Political consultant Matthew Langston said candidates across the country have to make decisions about campaigning in a pandemic that could hit or miss.
“It’s a daily discussion about how to go about campaigning during this pandemic, including what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it,” Langston said.