Amid coronavirus spike, Republicans head back on the trail in Houston

While the Democratic Senate candidates are staying largely virtual ahead of the July 14 runoffs, GOP contenders are planning in-person events with lots of masks and hand sanitizer.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
June 25, 2020, 8 p.m.

As hospitalizations and positive cases spike across Texas, Harris County has become the center of the coronavirus crisis.

The county, whose seat is Houston, reported 24,421 cases as of Wednesday, leading every metropolitan county in the state by more than 6,500 cases.

It’s also the site of Republican primary runoffs on July 14 in the 18th and 22nd Districts, and so far, candidates are pressing ahead with in-person campaigning.

Texas was one of the first states to reopen after its stay-at-home order expired April 30. The state had 65,000 coronavirus cases when June started; 126,000 Texans had tested positive as of Wednesday. Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the state would pause reopening phases after hospitalizations tripled in the past month.

In the 22nd District, which includes part of Harris County, Sheriff Troy Nehls of neighboring Fort Bend County resumed in-person campaigning about a month ago for his primary runoff against 2018 2nd District candidate Kathaleen Wall to determine who faces Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in the fall.

In fact, Nehls has a public event planned for this weekend: a Cuban pig roast at an indoor venue where the campaign said it will provide hand sanitizer and masks “for those who want them.” In April, Nehls called Harris County’s mask requirement “unconstitutional.” Texas’s first documented coronavirus case was in Fort Bend County on March 4, and it has since reported 3,176 cases there.

Attorney Wendell Champion, who’s running against businessman Robert Cadena for the Republican nomination in the 18th to face longtime Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, is planning a concert Saturday at a local brewery. Although Abbott has stressed that shutting down the state again is a last resort, local governments, including Harris County’s, started ordering businesses to require their customers to wear masks this week.

“We're going to provide masks, and we're going to provide little hand sanitizers just to make people feel more comfortable and to comply,” Champion told National Journal. “Even if we don't fully agree, we certainly want to comply with the letter of the law.”

Champion’s campaign has also resumed door-knocking in the past two weeks, although he said he expects canvassers might simply leave materials on doorsteps if residents are reluctant to open their doors.

Cadena is more hesitant—he said he’s leaving it up to volunteers whether they go door-to-door or make phone calls but doesn’t want to put anyone in an uncomfortable position.

“In some cases we're making it too political about the mask,” Cadena said. “In other cases, I can understand your justification for arguing why you shouldn't wear the mask, but let's not build this up bigger than what it is. I mean, it's a health situation.”

Sticking to in-person campaigning has been the norm for Republican candidates in this part of Texas. “I think, really just following those safety precautions is the most important thing, and that's what I'm seeing with our campaigns,” Harris County Republican Party spokesperson Genevieve Carter told National Journal. “I'm not seeing them canceling in-person events at this point.”

When asked whether he expects a decrease in in-person campaigning in response to the rising cases, Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey said that “it really depends.”

“As I recall, the intention never was to not have cases,” he said. “The intention was to make sure we didn't overwhelm hospitals and did not have a huge amount of preventable deaths.”

The state Republican Party is scheduled to hold its convention in Houston July 16-18, and mask-wearing won’t be mandated. Dickey said the party is “comfortable that the plan that we have been executing is still the right one to ensure safe progression through our convention process.”

In stark contrast, Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman said their campaigns have been campaigning almost entirely virtually since March.

“For right now, I think every campaign has made kind of a truce to stop in-person campaigning, and to make it almost 100 percent virtual on the Democratic side,” Rahman said.

But once the runoffs are over, Democrats will face Republican opponents who have been much less reticent about campaigning on the ground, and Rahman acknowledged that’s something the party will have to reevaluate for November.

State Sen. Royce West, who’s running against MJ Hegar in the U.S. Senate race, suspended almost all in-person campaign events, with the exception of a June 6 in-person debate with Hegar. Hegar spokesperson Amanda Sherman also told National Journal the Austin-based campaign has been “fully virtual.”

“It's certainly causing us to realize that, for the remainder of this election cycle, it seems that it will be unlikely that we will return to a traditional form of campaigning,” West spokesperson Vince Leibowitz said. The debate scheduled for Monday will be virtual.

West participated in Black Lives Matter protests at the beginning of the month. Attorney Ann Johnson, who's running in the 134th state House district in the Houston suburbs against Republican Rep. Sarah Davis, also participated in protests this month.

The “local GOP still isn't rising to the occasion of dealing with a public-health crisis,” Johnson said. “At some point there's a tipping point where you say, OK, partisanship has to go out the window. And if a global pandemic is not it, clearly, it's never going to be with this group.”

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