Pandemic politics: How big a factor will COVID be in Texas campaign 2022?
What the candidates in 2022 can learn, and what should they avoid, as they enter yet another campaign cycle under the shadow of COVID.
AUSTIN — When the coronavirus pandemic locked in just after the March 2020 Texas primaries, it forced candidates and operatives onto an uncharted and uncertain political path.
Now, nearly two years and some 76,000 COVID-19 deaths in Texas later — not to mention the 821,000 nationally — the pandemic is likely to again cast a long and dark shadow over the coming 2022 campaign trail. So let's review the lessons of two years ago and see how they might apply over the next months.
As 2020 dawned, the U.S. unemployment rate was riding a steady downward decline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the outlook for the coming year was pretty rosy. That was sweet music to then-President Donald Trump as he headed into his reelection campaign because voters pretty much never send an eviction notice to the White House when the country as whole is working steadily and eating well.
So desperately did Trump want to run on the economy that he downplayed or sent mixed messages about the virus right out of the gate.
"We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control," Trump said on Jan, 22, 2020. "It’s — going to be just fine." Five weeks later, he doubled down: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
The only thing that disappeared was the robust economy. By April, amid stay-at-home orders and disruptions in the manufacturing and retail sectors, unemployment vaulted to almost 15%. Along the way, Trump's pandemic message was a mish-mash, and that helped cement the notion that his presidency was a seat-of-the-pants affair at a time when the country craved steady leadership. And the voters made him pay.
Democrats, especially at the statehouse and congressional levels, wrongly thought they'd be rewarded for being the "eat-your-peas" party during the pandemic. That meant no door-knocking, no gatherings and no contact, lest they spread the virus. But what actually happened was they didn't spread their message in the personal ways that count when it comes to retail politicking.
Republicans, by and large, were less hesitant about venturing out with varying amounts of precaution. The difference was huge, especially in Texas. While in the presidential race, Trump's performance in the state tanked compared with 2016, Democrats' boast that they'd pick up a dozen or more seats in the Texas House and actually take the majority fizzled.
In post-mortems with reporters after the election, state Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the party's no in-person contact strategy was a mortal error.
Early indications are that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would rather not see the pandemic as the defining issue of his campaign for a third term. In 2020, when he was not on the ballot, Abbott cast himself as a take-charge leader in pandemic response. Flurries of executive orders fluttered from his offices on the Capitol's second floor. He purposely limited business activity and somewhat belatedly imposed face-covering mandates.
Most were well-received, except from his party's right flank. And through much of 2021, Abbott has recast himself as an anti-mandate champion, especially when it comes to mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccine requirements. That puts him in lockstep with his party's conservative base but out of step with the broad center. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in November showed a solid majority of Texans supporting masking and vaccine requirements.
Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic front-runner to take on Abbott in November, faults Abbott for big-footing school districts' and local governments' ability to adopt COVID-fighting measures. The current omicron-powered spike might change the dynamic, but O'Rourke has so far not limited his person-to-person contact with voters.
In fact, through much of 2021, O'Rourke organized and attended dozens of rallies and gatherings to promote voting rights and other Democratic core issues even before he formally entered the governor's race.
Two years into pandemic politics, much of the initial uncertainty lingers. Vaccines have been able to tame the spikes, and just as fast new variants bust forward to reignite them. COVID fatigue is palpable among voters and politicians alike.
Even though Trump's early prediction of a miraculous disappearance has never materialized, if's a safe bet that everyone in every party wishes it would.
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.