Two months ago, campaigns across Texas were in full gear as they prepared for the primary elections on Super Tuesday.
Now, many campaigns have effectively been put on a temporary hold as society has shifted its attention to the coronavirus pandemic.
“People are not focused on politics right now,” state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) told The Texan. “They’re focused on trying to get this plague behind us.”
A Focus on the Coronavirus
Many candidates running for office have shifted their attention — at least to some degree — away from election efforts and toward their communities during this time of crisis.
West, who is currently in a runoff with MJ Hegar for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, said that since the concerns about COVID-19 began growing in early March, he’s spent three-fourths of his time focused on his responsibility as a state senator in the Dallas area.
“Needless to say,” said West, “millions of people are filing for unemployment compensation. We have people with no insurance. We need to have treatment — people need to get tested and get it treated. So I’ve been focused on that.”
West, as well as Hegar, has worked at sharing resources to help people throughout the pandemic.
Likewise, Senator Cornyn’s campaign team has adjusted their focus.
“Our field team has totally refocused their efforts on volunteering in their communities — at food pantries, Meals on Wheels, literacy video programs, and more,” said Krista Piferrer, the press secretary for the Cornyn campaign. “They are also calling our supporters to simply check-in and see if they need anything.”
On a communications side, the Cornyn campaign has prioritized the dissemination of relevant information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and Governor Greg Abbott.
Other congressional candidates who are not already serving in an official capacity have also shifted their focus to helping their communities.
Beth Van Duyne, the Republican nominee in the race to replace retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX-24), suspended all of her campaign activities in early March for the foreseeable future, according to Donald Rickard, her campaign manager.
Rickard said that having received 64 percent of the primary vote, Van Duyne wanted to “make sure she was returning the favor from everybody that supported her, and turned the campaign into an outreach and community service operation.”
According to Rickard, the campaign prepared over 20,000 meals and delivered them to a few different food pantries across the DFW-area district.
Van Duyne’s campaign has also been delivering boxes of coffee to police departments and campaign volunteers have “been making thousands of wellness phone calls to those most vulnerable people right now.”
Kim Olson, one of Van Duyne’s Democratic opponents who is currently facing Candace Valenzuela in a runoff, has continued campaigning but has made similar use of her campaign infrastructure to serve the community.
“Among other things, we’ve made over 5,000 calls to at-risk constituents to offer help and get them the resources they need, we’ve delivered meals to at-risk seniors in TX-24, [and] we’re conducting a mask drive — utilizing our vast volunteer force to make and deliver face masks to our essential service workers that are getting overlooked when it comes to ensuring they are protected at work,” said Rachel Perry, Olson’s campaign manager.
According to Sharon Yang, a spokesperson for Jones’ campaign, her team has organized phone calls for volunteers to check in on neighbors and has “organized weekly virtual town halls where Gina is joined by experts to answer questions from viewers and discuss the latest in COVID-19.”
Raul Reyes, a Republican candidate currently in a runoff with Tony Gonzales for the TX-23 nomination, told The Texan that in the past several weeks his campaign “has throttled down significantly and shifted over” to things that will help the community, like donating food to food pantries.
A Shift to Virtual Campaigning
With shelter-in-place orders in effect across the state, campaign activities have been forced away from the common meet-and-greet and door-knocking strategies and into the virtual world.
On a presidential level, the Trump campaign rapidly made this shift after the CDC released new social distancing guidelines on March 12.
“Within 24 hours, we were able to make a 100 percent switch to a virtual campaign apparatus,” said Samantha Cotten, a regional communications director for the Trump campaign. “Everything from our volunteer trainings, to our MAGA meetups, to our voter outreach all switched from being in-person, a boots-on-the-ground type thing to being virtual.”
According to Cotten, the campaign held its “National Day of Action” on March 28, when the grassroots team made 1.4 million voter calls to highlight the president’s coronavirus response and directing voters to coronavirus resources from the CDC — all calls coming “from the comfort of supporters’ own homes using the application Trump Talk.”
Hegar has taken a similar approach in reaching out to voters and training volunteers virtually.
“Texans don’t want us to stop doing the work it takes to earn their votes. They want us to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to the challenges we’re all facing,” Hegar told The Texan in a statement.
She noted that over the past several weeks, the campaign has “set up half a dozen virtual events with groups across Texas” and also “launched a six-week virtual organizing bootcamp to empower volunteers to reach out to their friends and neighbors about the campaign.”
West, Olson, Valenzuela, Jones, and Reyes all noted that they were making similar changes to their campaigns, both in terms of organizing their teams and reaching out to voters.
Piferrer said that now the “initial COVID relief bills [have] passed,” Cornyn’s team has resumed online fundraising, but “to a much lower degree” than prior to the pandemic.
Complications of a Runoff Date Change
One notable change to elections as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has been the postponement of the runoff elections.
Originally slated for May 26, Gov. Abbott decided to postpone the elections until July 14.
Of the candidates and campaigns that The Texan spoke with, none were critical of Abbott’s decision, and several — both Democrats and Republicans — applauded it as the right move as a precaution against spreading the virus.
Most of the Democrats, however, noted that they had called on Abbott and other state officials to expand voting options, particularly vote-by-mail.
The change of the runoff date has further complications for some races.
While it will have little effect on races where there are no runoffs in either parties, in races with runoffs, the postponement means parties will have 40 fewer days to rally around their nominee in some races.
So although Republicans know that Cornyn and Van Duyne will be on the November ballot, Democrats aren’t certain who will be their nominees in the Senate and TX-24 races. In TX-23, the reverse is the case.
West still sees the date change as advantageous, though.
“Given that I’ve had to discharge my duties as a state senator, having it in July helps tremendously,” said West. “Once this is over or people can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it will give me the opportunity to get back to fundraising to get the necessary resources for me to win the runoff election.”
In TX-23, Reyes acknowledged the added difficulty it presented, but remained optimistic about his campaign.
“When we win — and that’s what we’re projecting — it just makes it harder to fundraise and revamp for the November election,” said Reyes. “The time gap is just so small.”
Regardless of the timing of the runoff, though, Reyes said that the good news for his campaign is that they are supported by grassroots voters who “aren’t going to go away.”
In TX-24, Perry noted that the Olson campaign faced similar challenges.
“The major concern is that the election postponement has shortened the runway for the successful run-off candidate to rebuild and re-set to take on the Republican challenger in November,” said Perry.
She likened the difficulty to the presidential race, wherein the Democratic primary was also postponed due to the coronavirus and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) recently suspended his campaign after acknowledging that his odds of winning the nomination were slim.
“Just as we see on a national level,” said Perry, “there is mounting pressure by donors, activists, and voters alike for candidates who lost by double digits in the primary to step aside and begin the business of uniting the party behind our shared mission.”
In the March 3 Democratic primary, Olson led with 41 percent of the vote while Valenzuela trailed with 30 percent.
Regardless of the unpredictable turn 2020 has taken, the competitiveness of this election cycle will only continue to escalate.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.