Coronavirus complicates campaigning in Texas, prompts shift in party operations

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar)— When Hurricane Harvey tore into Texas, the Republican Party of Texas altered operations to serve communities.

A similar system has re-evolved in the state as the invisible coronavirus pandemic brings physical challenges for Texans and their families.

The party’s “RPT Serves” initiative encourages Texans to come to the aid of neighbors, using gestures such as supporting small businesses, delivering supplies, donating blood or volunteering at a food bank.

“Our first resort should be us helping each other and ‘RPT Serves’ is us living out that personal responsibility serving our fellow Texans,” said James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

“We really suggested that everybody reached out and bridge the gap between the needs of the most vulnerable Texans and the resources they need using our grassroots network to garner and deliver aid where it’s needed most,” Dickey said.

Political organizers in the Texas Democratic Party rushed to accommodate an inability for candidates and their campaigns to meet Texans face to face, by going virtual. The ever-growing team launched a series of new programs, like ConnectTexas, an online platform designed to bring people together in an online community to talk about important issues. The goal is to inform, but beyond that, inspire action.

Olivia Stitilis, organizing director for the Texas Democratic Party, speaks during a Facebook Live stream highlighting the party’s ConnectTexas platform. Photo Courtesy: Texas Democratic Party Facebook page

“This is time where people either have more time on their hands or they feel like ‘Wow, I really can’t sit on the sidelines,’ seeing the impact their elected officials are having,” Olivia Stitilis, organizing director for the Texas Democratic Party, said.

At their heart, campaigns are about “earning trust with people in order to earn their vote,” according to the party’s executive director Manny Garcia.

That’s why the Texas Democratic Party put forth an initiative coined “RegisterTexas.com” to connect prospective voters with ballot information.

“It’s critical to make sure that we get information in front of people, that we continue to campaign hard, that we continue to earn trust with Texans, and that we don’t skip a beat,” Garcia said.

Republican volunteers have also beefed up campaign calls and online voter engagement. Party leadership set a goal of reaching 100,000 new registered voters. They have 15,000 to go, which is “well ahead of plan” Dickey said.

High school student Reed Thorn, a volunteer with the Republican Party of Texas, makes calls to help register voters. Photo Courtesy: Republican Party of Texas

Republicans also more than doubled field staff.

“We were already well on our way to registering voters and talking to voters,” he said. “We already had the phone banking system up that would allow anybody to phone bank from home.”

“We just pivoted from in-person contacts, in-person training and in-person voter contact to phone voter contact and online training,” Dickey said.

The days of door-to-door campaigning ahead of the November election and the primary runoffs in July are done for now, according to State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus.

“Obviously, candidates aren’t going door-to-door talk to voters right now,” Turner said April 30. “People aren’t going to be greeting voters to the polls, or at least not shaking their hands and talking to them anytime real soon.”

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, politics ought to take a back seat during the pandemic.

“I’m not seeing really any level of campaigning or politicization at this point, other than a few Facebook, fundraising emails that I’ve seen come out from Democrats,” Bonnen said on April 30.

“We’re at a point in time where maybe we’re on the front end of seeing people getting back out to being able to do some political discussions and those things,” Bonnen said, adding that over the last six weeks, “all I’ve seen is people coming together to protect the Texas economy, protect Texans from a deadly virus and protect Texans from the spread of that virus.”

COVID-19 forced the political parties to make changes to their upcoming conventions.

The Libertarian National Committee was slated to have its convention in Austin in the third week of May, but will be held partially online next week and then in Orlando in July at a venue with enough space to provide for more social distancing.

Texas Republicans moved their from May to July in Houston.

State Democrats are going digital, with a fully-online convention the first week of June, which will include a debate in the primary runoff for senate nominee.

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