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Texas politicians adjust campaigns amid coronavirus fears

A maintanence staff member vacuums the floor beneath an American Flag on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Jason Westin understands a candidate's need to be out on the campaign trail. Once a hard-charging congressional candidate himself, he remembers the drive to out-campaign, out-gladhand, out-work the competition.

But the MD Anderson Cancer Center doctor has one word to describe any of the 2020 candidates who might be tempted to press the flesh amid the coronavirus outbreak: "dangerous."

"Every moment that you feel like you are not engaging with voters, is a moment you feel like someone else is and you’re falling behind," said Westin, who ran as a Democrat in 2018 for a Houston area U.S. House seat. "But from a public safety and a responsible future leadership standpoint, the candidates need to be very careful about how they approach this pandemic.

"They have to be responsible not just for their campaign, but their future constituents and themselves," he added.

The Texas primary is over, but campaigning across the state goes on. Some candidates are still in full-throttle campaign mode, with an eye on the May 26 runoff. But because Texas is increasingly a battleground state, more candidates and incumbents than in recent memory are gearing up for tough fall general election races.

More than anything else, it is hard work that makes campaigns successful. "You walk, you win," is an old campaign motto, referring to door-knocking. And in the modern era, candidates hold fundraisers and events where they can shake hands and take selfies with supporters. They also host town halls and rallies, packed with hundreds of supporters.

All of which are activities that spread germs.

And so across the state, candidates are shifting gears at light speed. Many members of Congress are considering canceling town halls and instead hosting tele-town halls, which are conference calls featuring thousands of listeners.

Door-knocking is similarly out of vogue.

"As the risk becomes greater and as we really start to have our daily lives in Fort Worth impacted by it, we have a plan," said Elizabeth Beck, a Fort Worth Democratic running for the state House of Representatives. "We are shifting gears in that more virtual contact with voters. Personal phone calls as opposed to hitting doors. We are doing a lot of text banking and phone banking."

"I think it would be hard to tell people that I’m out here running to make their lives better while at the same time putting their lives at risk," she added.

Up in Washington, the chairman of the House GOP campaign arm encouraged staffers to work from home. Members of Congress canceled a number of fundraisers around town, and it is highly unlikely any fundraisers will be held in the near future.

"We have three fundraisers scheduled in the next four weeks," said Beck, the Democratic state legislative candidate. "And we’re going to have a serious conversation with the hosts about how we move forward."

At the same time, the isolation means candidates have more time to dial for dollars over the phone. But even that tactic could be similarly fruitless, given that donors might be in shock over the stock market's collapse in recent weeks.

There is also online fundraising. In this capacity and in other messaging, Democrats are making the case to elect them into office to put them in control of the pandemic response.

”We can get control of this crisis, but we must act right now,” wrote Democratic Congressional candidate Kim Olson, in a fundraising email. “This is a time for strong leadership, clear communication, and unity.”

But U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, who is in a tough reelection race against former state Sen. Wendy Davis, said he is done fundraising for the quarter.

"While we focus our attention on our communities and working to #BeatCoronaVirus - I will not be soliciting campaign contributions for the rest of the 1Q (through March 31) at which time I will re-evaluate," he wrote on Twitter. "Let's drop politics and do what Americans do best...triumph."

On Thursday, Tyler Mitchell, the Texas Democratic Party's candidate services director, sent out a lengthy memo to candidates citing preventative guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Your campaign may consider shifting some of your voter contact methods to phones and texts and away from blockwalking — phone calls and text messages allow you to reach voters without in-person contact," he wrote.

Political insiders interviewed by The Texas Tribune were reluctant to fully suspend campaigning, a tact taken during moments of calamity. One Texas Republican source pointed to then-presidential candidate John McCain's 2008 decision to suspend his campaign during the financial crisis. It flat did not work, and only fueled the scale of panic.

Similarly, Democratic Party strategists are encouraging their candidates to "be present" via the internet.

Candidates and their staffs need to be healthy in order to function. And many of these current and aspiring leaders are aiming to model the behavior they hope the public replicates.

But the stakes are bigger than that. It would be nothing short of a disaster for a candidate to plow on and host a public event, only to have that gathering cited as a point where a virus spread throughout a community.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a Lewisville Republican, is also a medical doctor. He said his office now has a "no-handshake" policy, and he avoids holding onto rails while climbing stairs these days at the U.S. Capitol. He, too, advises hand-washing and frequent hand sanitizing.

But he sees a silver lining, at least in the near term. While there are still runoffs to be litigated, Burgess is at least grateful that Super Tuesday came and went before the coronavirus impact fully hit his home state.

"The best practice was to have the primary last week behind us," he said.

Alex Samuels and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: MD Anderson Cancer Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.