Campaigning in the Age of COVID-19

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As COVID-19 cases continue to rise at alarmingly high rates in Texas, the two political parties are approaching campaigning in remarkably different ways. While many Democratic candidates continue to hold virtual events, Republicans are forging ahead with in-person settings that often have few face masks.

That stark difference played out as Vice President Mike Pence spoke to a crowd in Dallas of more than 2,000, which included a 100-person choir. Pence joined Pastor Robert Jeffress for a “Celebrate Freedom Sunday” service at First Baptist Dallas. The event had been billed for weeks at the downtown megachurch.

That same day, Dallas continued its trend of posting the highest number of COVID-19 cases with 570. As cases continue to rise alarmingly, Gov. Greg Abbott has shifted his tone slightly,  shutting down bars and encouraging people to stay home.

For weeks now many Republican candidates have been holding in-person events throughout Texas. Last weekend on June 20, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Kevin Brady at a packed bar for an open forum hosted by the Kingwood Tea Party. Photos on state Sen. Brandon Creighton’s Facebook show a non-socially distanced crowd with no face masks.

A week earlier, Crenshaw tweeted that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was “fear-mongering” by saying Houston was on the verge of disaster. In reality, Harris County has seen a huge rise in new cases and hospitalizations. Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, for example, announced that they were admitting adult patients to free up spaces in packed ICUs.

In Dallas, state Rep. Rhetta Bowers is defending her seat in House District 113. Her opponent Will Douglas has been meeting with constituents in person at events since last month. Douglas also was at the roundtable in Dallas with President Trump two weeks ago. More than 600 people were at the Gateway church with very few face masks.

For Bowers, she finds the idea of in-person events without face masks dangerous. In an interview with the Texas Signal she said, “I have always thought not wearing a mask is irresponsible. As legislators, as elected officials, we want to be out and amongst [the people], but we have to be examples.”

 Bowers also stressed she has to think about not only her own safety, but that of her family, and campaign staff. “You can be serious about service, but you have to be smart.”

Health experts around the world have been warning that the best ways to decrease transmission of COVID-19 are through social distancing and face masks. However, many members of the Texas GOP are taking their cues from the White House, and not medical professionals.

The state GOP is planning to go forward with their convention in-person in Houston next month. The head of the Texas GOP James Dickey said face masks were going to be optional. Abbott has said attendees should wear a mask. Dickey was present at First Baptist for Pence’s remarks. A photo beforehand shows no social distancing or face masks.

Over the weekend Dickey was with the Travis County GOP for a senate district convention. Photos on Twitter show some programming was held indoors with few people wearing masks. They did hold one event in a church where people were socially distanced.

The current pinned tweet of the Dallas County GOP shows a man holding up a “set us free” sign and a message to Judge Clay Jenkins. “[Your] tyrannical decision to mandate masks infringes on private business. What is it with Dem Judges overreaching? Remember this tyranny when you vote in November.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert has been attending several sessions and hearings in Congress without a face covering. Gohmert is refusing to wear a mask unless he is infected with COVID-19.

The Texas GOP forges ahead. Their convention is scheduled for July 16-18 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Abbott has given local officials the power to limit outdoor capacity to 100 people, which would have no effect on the convention.

In a comment to the Texas Signal Dallas County Democratic Chair Carol Donovan said, “It is ironic that the same week Vice President Pence visited Texas and praised Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus, Abbott had to backtrack his reopening.”

On June 25, Kaufman County Republican activist Bill Baker passed away from COVID-19. A former chairman of the Kaufman County GOP, Baker attended the county’s convention earlier this month. While experts caution about speculating when he contracted the virus, it is a troubling sign as the Republican Party in Texas continues to hold many in-person events with optional face masks.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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