In a pandemic and an election year, Texas Democrats look for the right tone
The party, which has high hopes in the state in 2020, is looking to offer contrast without politicizing a crisis.
On the day Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order telling Texans to stay at home through April to suppress the spread of the new coronavirus, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus put out a statement mostly praising the action.
“We believe it amounts to a step in the right direction,” state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said.
That same afternoon, the state Democratic Party took an entirely different tone.
“Governor Abbott’s and the rest of the Texas Republican’s mismanaged response to the coronavirus epidemic has endangered Texans,” said Manny Garcia, the party’s executive director, in a statement blasting state leadership’s handling of the crisis so far.
The novel coronavirus doesn’t discriminate between political parties. But the federal and statewide response to the contagion is being led by elected officials in a massively important election year. And as some in the opposition party criticize Republicans for the nation’s now-ruinous economy and rising death toll, they’re grappling with a particularly fraught political landscape: Can they make gains for their own party without appearing like they’re politicizing — or rooting for — a global health tragedy?
That question has caused some Democrats to extend an olive branch while others have lambasted Republicans — including Abbott and President Donald Trump.
“I am cautious about being critical of leaders in a way that undermines public trust in government because we need folks to trust government actions,” said Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood.
“There are moments where I’ve been frustrated and wished that I could express a frustration more strongly. I’ve had moments where I’ve, quite frankly, felt lied to, and have thought about it and have decided that this is not the moment for the accountability for this particular issue,” she said. “This is the moment to move forward and address the pandemic.”
To be clear, the novel coronavirus has been filtered through a partisan lens on both sides. Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting the pandemic to ban abortion. In February, Trump likened Democrats’ concerns about the coronavirus as “their new hoax” before walking back his statements. The back-and-forth led some political scientists to worry that skeptics of opposing parties might be goaded to dismiss vital information as “fake news.”
“We’ve entered into a time where partisanship seems to determine so much of our politics, and that’s damaging,” said William DeSoto, an associate professor of political science at Texas State University.
But as the opposition party, Democrats might have to strike a more delicate balance.
“They have to show that their comments are objective and not driven by animosity,” DeSoto said. “You have to try to be objective and not just seem like you’re doing a hit job.”
Buoyed by a blue wave that crashed the 2018 midterms, the state’s minority party has used the last two years to encourage supporters and disillusioned Republicans to vote Trump out of office. Though traditionally conservative, Texas has shown signs of purpling in previous election cycles. At the state House level, Democrats are nine seats away from nabbing the majority. And the party is targeting seven U.S. House seats in November.
But as Democrats spread the party’s gospel — while acknowledging in April that the country may look entirely different in November — the coronavirus has upended their traditional politicking.
Primary runoff elections were postponed, forcing several Democrats in especially competitive races to suspend day-to-day campaigning and delay their focus on the general election another few months. That, coupled with the public’s unbreakable focus on the contagion, has sidelined a broader agenda that once included issues like gun control, climate change and health care.
“We continue to be in contact with voters every single day,” said José Garza, who’s in a runoff election with incumbent Margaret Moore in the Travis County District Attorney race. “But we’re making those phone calls and sending those texts, first and foremost, to check in on people. We feel a responsibility right now to care for the most vulnerable.”
And some of the biggest assumptions of the 2020 race a few months ago have been upended. Democrats came into the year expecting they’d be running with an unpopular Republican president at the top of the ticket who would be touting a historically strong economy.
Now the economy is in shambles, but Trump at least temporarily saw his approval rating tick up in the process. A March Gallup poll found Americans approved of his handling of the coronavirus crisis by a 60% to 38% margin. (More recent polls, however, have shown a downtick in approval of Trump overall and of his handling of the crisis.)
“I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to those polls,” said Democrat Sharon Hirsch, who is challenging state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. “But it’s going to be incumbent on us to make our case and get the word out about our campaigns.”
Already, some partisan fights have emerged.
The two parties have repeatedly butted heads over whether the state should expand voting by mail for the November election, with most Democrats in strong support and many Republicans opposed.
Last week, state and national Democrats laced into U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, for seemingly comparing stay-at-home measures in place in other states with Nazi policies. Roy is a national target for Democrats; his general election opponent is former state Sen. Wendy Davis.
“Congressman Roy equating common-sense public health measures with ‘Nazi Germany’ would show a profound lack of judgment at any time, but his invocation while medical professionals are asking for our help to save lives is despicable,” read a statement from the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Congressman Roy’s remarks show he’s unfit for office and every Republican in Congress should condemn his rhetoric.”
The day before, during a conference call with reporters, state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, assailed some Republicans who have used anti-Chinese rhetoric to describe the coronavirus.
“This is unfortunately the same play for the Republican Party that we’ve seen over and over again, and it’s unfortunate because they didn’t used to be like this,” Wu said. Of Republicans who claim to not understand why certain terms like Chinese virus or Wuhan virus are racist, Wu said, “Either they’re too stupid to be in office, or they’re purposefully playing this down.”
There have been some instances of cooperation, too. Abbott has worked with Democratic local leaders, including mayors and county judges, to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Most recently, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat formerly in the Texas House, said he shared the governor’s concerns when it appeared as though a pop-up hospital in Dallas might leave the city.
And last month, most members of the Texas delegation supported a bipartisan massive spending bill intended to cushion the blow of the health and economic impacts caused by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Some Democrats have said that they’re not looking to pick fights during a national emergency, arguing that any criticism of the opposing party is warranted during a time when lives and livelihoods are at stake.
“All of us want, for the sake of our country, want the president to be successful as he leads our federal government in the response to this pandemic,” Turner said. “But any fair assessment of the job he’s done so far obviously comes to the conclusion that the Trump administration’s response has been an utter failure.”
But statements like Turner’s are at odds with those of Texas Republicans, who have dismissed Democrats as being more focused on making inroads for their own party than fighting the virus — the GOP’s “invisible enemy.”
“Right now we don’t have any time to play political games,” Roy said. “We need to be focused like a laser on getting our economy started ASAP, and we’ve got to get dollars to businesses to keep them afloat.”
Abbott has been the most visible Texas Republican during the response, holding multiple press briefings each week and issuing numerous executive orders encouraging social distancing and the expansion of medical capacity. So far, Texas has avoided the fates of hardest-hit regions like Washington state, New York and Louisiana. Democrats have at times urged him to move faster or take more drastic action, but they have largely avoided direct conflict. The harshest criticism has come from the state party or groups aligned with Democrats, not individual candidates.
Some political scientists and former elected officials who have lived through other notable emergencies say that parties pillorying each other, or one party resorting to name-calling and cheap shots to posit itself as better than the other, only undercuts its arguments that it’s not looking to profit from the coronavirus.
Mike Rawlings, the former Dallas mayor who helped lead the city through an Ebola outbreak in 2014, said it was an “apples-to-oranges” comparison between Ebola and COVID-19. Still, he stressed the importance of parties and local, county and state officials working together for the common good.
“There’s dialogue back and forth, there’s hospital data being created, there’s policies being made, the Texas Guard being implemented in different areas,” he said of the COVID-19 response so far. “This is only happening because people are working together.”
Still, some Democrats can’t help but question whether Trump has the credibility to guide the country to the other end of the public health crisis given his penchant for grandstanding and making false claims in times of national crisis. Two years after 2017’s Hurricane Maria, Trump lauded himself on Twitter as “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico.” He also cast doubt on the official estimate of nearly 3,000 deaths because of the storm.
But with months before the November elections, most Democrats say they’re focused on the issue at hand — eliminating the virus.
“People just want to get through this,” Hirsch said. “Right now people aren’t thinking much about politics, they’re just trying to stay afloat.”
Turner, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, put it bluntly: “November is a long ways off, and there’s no telling what the environment will be like in November.
“That’s still seven months away, which is seven lifetimes in politics,” he said.
Disclosure: Texas State University 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.
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