COVID-19 takes a toll on 2020 campaigns, election experts say

voting booths, 2020 voter guide
COVID-19 has changed the way some campaigns have reached voters this year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

COVID-19 has changed the way some campaigns have reached voters this year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Editor's Note: Katy City Council candidate Sam Pearson's last name was misspelled in error in this story on Page 1 of the Oct. 21 print edition. Additionally, the $351 attributed to Pearson's campaign in the same graphic was not a political campaign donation, but instead from his own personal funds.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic not only halting in-person events for several months this year but also creating an economic downturn, political campaigning has looked different, said Cynthia Ginyard, the chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party.

“It’s been aggravating, to say the least,” Ginyard said. “It’s curtailed our events and the way we do things [and] our interaction with people.”

Linda Howell, the chair of the Fort Bend County Republican Party, said she is proud of how the party committee and candidates have adapted.

“We have been respectful of what the governor has asked and carried on campaigns and work with safety, of course, in mind,” Howell said. “We’re trying to do our part to speed this [pandemic] along so we can open up our state.”

With social distancing being top of mind the last seven months, Ginyard said going door to door for campaigning has not been happening because it is hard to gauge how comfortable people are with coming in contact with others.

“It’s just been a total hindrance,” Ginyard said. “But, you know, you just keep moving. But [COVID-19] has been very interruptive.”

Funding flows

While Ginyard said she could not speak specifically to the financial effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on campaigning and donations, she acknowledged with so many people losing their jobs, donating has been interrupted.

Harris County Democratic Chair Lillie Schechter said, since Texas is such a large state, she thinks Zoom meetings and fundraisers have helped candidates get in front of more people more frequently and for longer periods of time than in the past.

“After the initial transition, I think most candidates are embracing virtual fundraisers and events,” Schechter said. “Attendees can get to know candidates better than they ever have before because there are more opportunities to interact—especially for state candidates.”

Harris County Republican Chair Keith Nielsen could not be reached for comment as of press time, Oct. 16.

Although big fundraising events have not been possible this year due to COVID-19, Schechter said candidates have shifted to having more frequent online events while increasing text, email and social media outreach to reach more people.

Federal campaign finance law sets limits on how much money can be given and to whom. For the 2020 races, donors can give up to $2,800 per election per candidate, with primary and general elections counted separately, according to campaign finance law.

But they can also give up to $35,500 per year to national party committees’ general funds and up to $106,500 to specific party funds, such as accounts used for the national convention. Another $10,000 can be given to local parties’ federal accounts per year and $5,000 to political action committees.

Donors have no limits when it comes to super PACs, but those groups are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with a campaign.

“They tend to be more focused on attacking their candidate’s opponents rather than supporting them directly,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University professor and fellow with the Baker Institute of Public Policy.

Diving into U.S. House District 22

A highly contested race with 20 candidates in the primary election, the U.S. House District 22 seat will see a new officeholder after the Nov. 3 election.

The seat has been held Republican Pete Olson for over a decade, but he decided not to run again this election cycle. Now, Republican Troy Nehls, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni and Libertarian Joseph LeBlanc are vying for the congressional seat in the Nov. 3 election.

According to Federal Election Commission data from July 1, 2019-June 30, 2020, Nehls received about $517,000 in campaign donations, while Kulkarni received over $2.5 million from Jan. 1, 2019-June 30, 2020. The date ranges differ for the two candidates because Nehls filed to run later than Kulkarni.

The majority of both candidates totals came from individual donations with Kulkarni receiving $2.4 million and Nehls receiving $476,306.94.

For Nehls, 42 individuals donated the highest amount of $2,800. For Kulkarni, 72 individuals gave the highest amount of $5,600, with ActBlue—a Democratic Party fundraising site—accounting for $168,000, or 30 separate contributions.

As a traditionally red district, the area encompassing Fort Bend County and portions of Brazoria and Harris counties is beginning to trend blue. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, 51% of voters voted for the Republican candidate, while 47% voted for the Democratic candidate. The remaining 2% of voters voted for the Libertarian or Green party candidates.

According to Fort Bend County election data, this near 50-50 split in 2018 closed a large gap compared to 2014’s gubernatorial election, when nearly 70% of voters favored the Republican candidate and about 30% of voters favored the Democratic candidate.

Howell said she believes the district will stay red.

However, as the early-voting period and Election Day approaches, Ginyard said she expects the District 22 race to be a “nail-biter.”

“I think that it will be a close race,” she said. “I hope we will prevail. We are working hard to pull it off, but it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

Looking at local races

In the Katy area, Katy City Council and Katy ISD have seats up for election Nov. 3.

These races are nonpartisan, and Howell said she thinks it is a good thing city and school district candidates do not have to deal with party lines.

“I think they might have to fight a little bit for their own platform and recognition not having a party identification next to their name, but these races are probably the most important races that are going to affect our community,” she said. “I think it can be a blessing for them if they don’t want to get caught up with the different platforms of the two parties.”

Katy City Council has seven candidates competing for two seats, and KISD has four candidates competing for two seats.

According to campaign finance records from KISD, total political expenditures ranged from about $1,000 for Bill Lacy—incumbent KISD position 5 board trustee—to nearly $4,000 for Leah Wilson, who is running for position 4.

However, contribution balances reported as of press time were $0 for Wilson and Michael Dillard, who is also running for the position 4 seat. Lacy received about $200 in contributions while his challenger Greg Schulte received roughly $60.

Early voting for these and other races runs from Oct. 13-Oct. 30, and Election Day is Nov. 3.

Matt Dulin contributed to this report.
By Beth Marshall
Born and raised in Montgomery County, Beth Marshall graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communication and a minor in business. Originally hired as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in 2016, she became editor of the Sugar Land/Missouri City edition in October 2017.