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Texas Democrats’ convention begins online-only Monday, while state GOP officials stick to in-person plans in July

Democratic party paraphernalia on display in Texas. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)
Democratic party paraphernalia on display in Texas. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

The Texas Democratic and Republican parties are planning very different conventions this summer as the coronavirus pandemic persists — and drawing a growing national spotlight along the way.

The state Democratic Party is holding an exclusively virtual convention that kicks off Monday, while the Texas GOP is pressing forward with an in-person convention in mid-July in Houston. Both events are serving as instructive precursors — if not templates — for the respective national parties, which are wrestling with how to safely hold their own conventions later this summer.

The Democratic National Committee has postponed its Milwaukee convention until mid-August, though it is making preparations to conduct at least some of the gathering virtually. The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has said it is moving "full steam ahead" toward an in-person convention a week later in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Texas GOP in particular has reveled in its recent position, with Chairman James Dickey saying Thursday the party is "leading by example, showing how Texas can get back to business under the auspices of personal responsibility." The party has also lapped up additional national attention after Vice President Mike Pence suggested last week that the RNC could stage its convention in Texas if Charlotte does not work out.

"Listen, we believe it can be done," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a TV interview Thursday. "The Republican Party of Texas is planning on having our convention this summer in July and the Republican Party convention of Texas, numerically, is larger than the national convention, and so we will show that we would physically and logistically be able to host a convention like that in Texas. I know the president would love to continue to have that convention in North Carolina, but if North Carolina does not step up to the plate, Texas will be able to do so.”

For Texas Democrats, the dueling convention plans provide an obvious contrast. State party spokesman Abhi Rahman said Texas Republicans' plan for an in-person gathering is "another example of how they’ve downplayed and mismanaged this crisis from day one."

"They are willing to put everybody’s life at-risk in order to score political points with their base," Rahman said in a statement. "We wish they would follow the advice of healthcare experts and not put people at risk, especially the hospitality workers that will need to host them."

No state party has held a virtual convention of the scale of the Texas one yet, Rahman said, and other state parties have reached out to see how it is working for the Texas party. In mid-May, the Texas Democratic Party's convention director, Hannah Roe Beck, participated in a DNC panel discussion on how state parties are handling virtual events during the pandemic.

Above all, though, Texas Democrats are hoping to show with their convention that the eyes of the country are on the state for the November election. They have built a lineup featuring some of the most important Democrats in the country: presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden; U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; DNC Chairman Tom Perez; Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and former presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. To be sure, delegates will also hear from major Texas figures such as Beto O'Rourke, Julián Castro and Joaquin Castro.

Without having to physically lure speakers to Texas, landing such big national names is not as difficult. But the lineup is notably different from that for the 2018 convention, which was headlined by O'Rourke and the rest of the statewide ticket and featured few, if any, high-profile speakers from outside Texas.

The message that the 2020 lineup sends, Beck said, is that "Texas is the biggest battleground state and we are organizing and training and really propelling the state forward in advance of November." The event will "show how invested everybody is in flipping Texas," Rahman added.

The convention is coming at somewhat of an awkward time for the banner statewide attraction after the presidential race: the contest to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. MJ Hegar and Royce West are still in a primary runoff to challenge Cornyn, one that would have been wrapped up by convention time if the coronavirus had not delayed the runoff until July 14.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot, and West, the Dallas state senator, will face off for their first — and potentially only — runoff debate on the last day of the convention, Saturday. But each will also get individual speaking slots, as well as opportunities to speak to the various caucuses.

The timing of the convention also comes as the country continues to be gripped by protests over the death of George Floyd, the black Minnesota man who died after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer using his knee. The party made a number of last-minute changes to its convention as a result, scheduling a moment of silence for Floyd during the Monday kickoff, giving more prominent speaking time to those who can speak to racial justice and adding a panel discussion Monday that features several black leaders. Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, is set to participate in a separate panel two days later.

With its convention still a month and a half away, the Texas GOP has not begun to detail its lineup yet. But it has been deep in planning for how to safely conduct an in-person confab, mindful of the web of federal, state and local guidelines that are currently in effect — and could remain in effect to some degree by the time of the gathering.

The event is set to take place from July 16-18 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

Speaking Thursday on a call with party members, Dickey said 2,000 people have already registered for the convention, though the party is expecting far fewer than the 15,000 attendees it would have anticipated under normal circumstances.

The party's executive director, Kyle Whatley, spoke extensively on the call about what delegates can expect. Organizers plan to "use every square inch of the facility" to make room for social distancing. There will be "hand-sanitizing stations everywhere," along with similarly omnipresent signage reminding people to sanitize their hands. Crews will be "constantly" cleaning common areas and meeting areas after each use. There will be social-distancing markers for any line or queue, like the registration check-in desk. Drapes between booths will be raised from 3 feet high to 8 feet.

Masks, Whatley said, "are not mandated, but they're welcome and will be respected."

"The bottom line … is that we are in constant communication with the convention center staff, who are working with local public health officials," Whatley said. "All indications right now are that conditions are improving, not worsening. We will adjust these plans according to the circumstances on the ground based on orders ... that are in place at the time between now and then."

The party is still exploring some modifications to the event, such as temperature checks and limiting capacity to 50% for at least some meetings.

Pressed on the call about ensuring compliance with social distancing, Dickey said he was confident delegates would do the right thing.

“We are counting as always on Texas Republicans setting a great example and leading by example,” he said.