OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall's audience of about 40 people packed a banquet room in a Kansas City-area bistro. No one wore a mask during his lunchtime remarks about the coronavirus. The Republican nominee for Kansas' open Senate seat put one on later while talking to masked reporters but dropped it for a moment, saying, “I can’t breathe.”
A few days earlier, Democrat Barbara Bollier invited half a dozen local officials and activists to her first in-person event of the fall campaign. They stood in a socially distanced circle outside an elementary school empty of students in Manhattan in northeast Kansas.
In the polar opposite approaches to campaigning, awkwardness often seems the only common ground. Marshall and Bollier, however, have another shared experience: medical school.
At another time in U.S. history that might have meant the two doctors would be closely aligned on how best to prevent the spread of disease. But in this one, it only highlights how partisanship is shaping campaigns' messages on public health.
Across the country, Democrats are largely abiding by health officials’ guidance, using the moment to model safe practices and signal respect for experts. Republicans are regularly flouting that caution, using it as a moment to celebrate what they view as personal freedom.
In accepting the GOP's renomination Thursday, President Donald Trump defied his own administration’s pandemic guidelines to speak for more than an hour to a tightly packed, largely maskless crowd. Vice President Mike Pence spoke to an unmasked convention audience that afterward crowded together to snap photos and shake the candidate’s hand. He obliged at least once.
Similar scenes are playing out in other states. In North Carolina, the Republican candidate for governor, Dan Forest, has held so many big, indoor rallies and insisted on shaking hands so often that incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, put out a television ad featuring a doctor imploring Forest to “please stop.”
The split extended to voting in Kansas' primary earlier in August. Roughly two-thirds of Republicans voted in-person, while roughly two-thirds of Democrats used mail-in ballots.