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Analysis: The coronavirus forces face-to-face politics online

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Russell Holloway, left, and Amanda Chavira attended a Democratic town hall in Austin last year. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

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The pandemic has made political campaigns a little less visible and a lot less personal.

Political flyers aren’t hanging from our front doorknobs. Town hall meetings are held on computer screens now, cutting down on the cost of cupcakes and on many of the benefits of public discussions in big rooms. Fundraisers that would typically move smoothly from a candidate speech to a check and a handshake are now held online, with links for donors who want to send electronic contributions and add their names to hyperactive email lists.

Most Texas candidates aren’t busy campaigning for votes right now; most have secured their nominations and are preparing for the November general election. But candidates in Democratic and Republican Party runoffs are prepping for a July 14 election preceded by two weeks of early voting starting June 29. There’s also a special state Senate election in Central Texas on the ballot.

Winning voters’ attention for a runoff election, especially in the middle of the summer, is a tough proposition. The pandemic and other national news crowds out state and local political conversations. The runoff electorate is a smaller civic herd to begin with. That makes it easier to contact likely voters, but critical to get them to the polls — and to make sure they know a candidate’s name when they get there.

“Pandemic changed expectations about what a field campaign should be,” says Pritesh Gandhi, who’s in a runoff with Mike Siegel to pick the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Austin. A candidate still has to do all of the normal things — talk to people, win their favor, attract their votes, maybe collect some donations. But everything that used to be done in person now has the word “virtual” in front of it.

Gandhi does what he calls “virtual block walking,” using the phone instead of his feet to go door to door. “Virtual events have been the best-attended events of the campaign,” he says, comparing his runoff campaign with the one that preceded the March primary.

The details of what works and what’s different depend on the race. Statewide candidates don’t campaign door to door in the way that state House, state Senate or congressional candidates do. The state’s too big, and time is too short.

Individual contact with voters is done electronically and by mail and — when it’s time to vote — sometimes by phone. But the town hall meetings around the state that would give voters a chance to see candidates in the flesh aren’t happening, says Chrysta Castañeda, a Democrat running for an open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. Her opponent in July is former state Rep. Roberto Alonzo of Dallas; the winner will face Republican Jim Wright, who upset Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton in the March primary.

That commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, isn’t well known. Candidates of both political parties struggle to get attention — especially when there’s a flashy presidential race at the top of the ballot to distract voters. Castañeda says the collapse in the price of oil and the state of the economy have turned up the volume, but the July elections still aren’t the subject of everyday conversation in the state.

“It’s surprising how quickly we’re converting to a virtual campaign, and it’s more efficient than what I was doing,” she says. Flying around the state to town hall meetings and fundraisers has been replaced by virtual events that each have attracted 30 to 100 voters.

The delay in the runoff election — originally scheduled for May but pushed to July in the face of the pandemic — hasn’t given any candidates an advantage, in Gandhi’s estimation.

“April was a dead month,” he says. “It was lost for everyone.”

Things have picked up considerably. This is normally the season for Austin fundraising events, where candidates from all over Texas seeking state offices go to the state capital to raise money from lobbyists and special interest groups, often in a kind of serial check-harvesting operation held in adjacent rooms at a historic opera house now known as the Austin Club.

That’s not happening. Zoom is happening. It’s a way to hear from a candidate and to prompt like-minded or self-interested donors to send money. But it doesn’t build relationships the same way. Live fundraisers give donors and candidates a chance to meet in a way that’s not possible when the audience is a grid of faces on a computer screen.

The July runoffs are a trial run for the November general election. Voters will be wearing masks and carrying hand sanitizer, just like the election judges who handle their ballots. The courts are still deciding how many of those voters will be allowed to vote by mail. But the changes are on the other side, too, where candidates are trying to figure out how to connect with people they can’t see face to face, to build communities of people they’ve never actually met.