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COVID-19 kept Texas Democrats off the campaign trail in 2020. Not this time.

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

COVID-19 kept Texas Democrats off the campaign trail in 2020. Not this time.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In the 2020 election cycle, many campaigns in Texas went fully virtual as the coronavirus pandemic, then a new and uncertain threat, bore down on the state. They held virtual rallies, phone banks and fundraisers, trading in clipboards and walking shoes for webcams and microphones.

As the weeks went on, though, Republicans resumed in-person campaigning and managed to stave off a massive Democratic offensive in November. Democrats later admitted that their decision to suspend door-knocking and other in-person activities hurt them.

Now, nearly two years later and with a new COVID-19 variant surging across the state, Democrats appear set on avoiding the same mistake. Few, if any, Democratic campaigns have gone fully virtual, and many are pressing forward with in-person campaigning while taking some precautions.

“Like everyone else across the globe, we are keeping a close eye on the Covid-19 Omicron Variant and assessing the risks associated with this surge,” Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Angelica Luna Kaufman said in a statement. “However, there is a lot at stake this midterm election and in-person campaigning will be a critical component to engaging voters and winning these races.”

She emphasized the country is “not in the same situation as we were in 2020.” Vaccines are widely available, and people are well-practiced in how to stay safe in public.

Still, the omicron variant looms large, and the campaign trail has not been immune to it. Some forums are still being held virtually, and candidates, staffers and volunteers are having to deal with the logistical challenges that come when one of them tests positive amid the fast-spreading variant.

Since the arrival of the omicron variant late last year, Texas has seen an unprecedented surge in daily caseloads, as well as the positivity rate, or the ratio of cases to tests. Hospitalizations are well on their way to previous peaks.

All the while, Texas lags behind most other states in its vaccination rate, with 57% of people fully vaccinated as of Sunday.

Democrats continue to argue they are the more responsible party when it comes to public health. They say Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, needs to give local officials more independence to fight the pandemic, though he has ignored the demands for months, holding firm on his executive orders prohibiting mask and vaccine mandates. He is especially unlikely to change his mind as he approaches a contested GOP primary for reelection in which his pandemic management has been a top issue.

Of course, virtually nothing has changed on the campaign trail for Abbott and other Republicans in the primary, whose campaign stops look much like they did prior to the pandemic.

Democrats’ most celebrated candidate this cycle, gubernatorial contender Beto O’Rourke, has been regularly campaigning in person since launching his bid in November. He has been holding larger events outside, and his campaign asks attendees to wear masks and encourages them to be vaccinated. The campaign has made rapid testing available to attendees at some events.

“Speaking with Texans one-on-one is at the heart of our campaign,” O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Nick Rathod, said in a statement. “After holding 70 events in 30 cities during the first weeks of our campaign, we remain committed to meeting Texans where they are and will continue to closely follow” public health guidelines.

O’Rourke’s first campaign event since omicron began surging in Texas was Saturday in El Paso. Attendees were told “masks are strongly encouraged regardless of vaccination status” and that they would be provided for those who need them. On event sign-up pages, attendees were also told that by attending, “you understand and accept the risks associated with COVID-19.”

O’Rourke’s campaign is already block walking, though those who volunteer to do so have to sign a “COVID-19 Block Walk Safety Agreement Form.” Among other things, the form requires volunteers to wear masks when not eating or drinking and maintain their distance from voters “at all times possible.”

O’Rourke was among the Democrats who lamented the party’s refusal to campaign in person ahead of the 2020 election. He had been deeply involved in the fight for the Texas House majority through his Powered by People group, which shifted virtually all its activities online because of the pandemic. Writing to supporters days after Republicans swept Texas in the election, O’Rourke said one of the lessons was “nothing beats” talking to voters “eyeball to eyeball” and that “there is a safe way to do this, even in a pandemic.”

A state Democratic Party autopsy that came out months later also cited the lack of in-person-campaigning as a top factor, saying it “hurt our ground game.”

Kendall Scudder, a Democratic state House candidate who had called for reform at the state party after the disappointing 2020 election, said COVID-19 was a real problem for Democrats to navigate back then, but “we started using it as an excuse to not have to campaign, and we are not going to do that” again.

Scudder has been campaigning in person for an open seat in the Dallas area, with some precautions. He said his campaign has trained canvassers by telling them, “You knock, you step about 10 feet back, if you can get off their porch, get off their porch.”

“I think people are receptive to it, that you’re giving them space but you’re also working your butt off,” Scudder said. For Democrats, he added, “Priority No. 1 is safety. We are not interested in getting people sick. But priority No. 2 is making sure that Democrats are actually winning elections so we can make meaningful change so we can try to eradicate coronavirus.”

The pandemic changed the 2020 election beyond just forcing campaigns to reconsider in-person activities. Abbott postponed the May primary runoffs to July and extended the early voting period for the November election. Those decisions by Abbott, which he issued through executive order, drew pushback from some in his own party, who claimed — including in unsuccessful lawsuits — that he overstepped his authority.

In any case, this year’s March 1 contests are very unlikely to see such tweaks due to the pandemic, especially with the deadline for overseas ballots to go out coming up in a matter of days. An Abbott spokesperson, Renae Eze, said in a statement for this story that there are “no plans to make further changes for the March primaries.”

In the meantime, Democratic candidates in some of the state’s most closely watched races are leaving little doubt about their commitment to in-person campaigning.

Ruben Ramirez is running for the 15th Congressional District, an open seat anchored in the Rio Grande Valley that is expected to be the most competitive congressional race during the general election in Texas. He said in a statement he knows his community “expects you to show up” to earn its vote.

“I’m excited to continue campaigning in person, knocking doors, and holding events with my neighbors in South Texas from now until November,” Ramirez said.

At a minimum, candidates are showing a flexibility about campaigning that reflects the reality of the long-running pandemic. Kaufman, the spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, said Democrats are “actively campaigning both virtually and in person and we feel we can keep people healthy while getting them to the polls.”

“From the beginning, we were very clear about the fact that we were campaigning during an ongoing pandemic,” said Regina Monge, the campaign manager for Jessica Cisneros, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the primary again. “We are monitoring the situation closely. No matter how the methods of campaigning change as we learn more from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], our priority will be reaching voters where they are while keeping our community safe.”

Cisneros spent three days touring the district in person after Christmas, as the omicron surge was taking off. She had been slated to visit 15 cities.

Over the last weekend, the first one since the New Year holiday, candidates’ social media accounts were filled with images of them campaigning in person. Some of the pictures resembled the pre-pandemic campaign trail.

James Burnett, a candidate for a new Texas House district in suburban Houston, was out block walking and getting a grateful reception, according to a Facebook post showing the candidate meeting with voters while wearing a mask.

“Looking forward to seeing you at your door!” Burnett wrote.

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