The white, one-story house on a south San Antonio cul-de-sac practically screams, “A Republican lives here!” The Dodge Ram 1500 in the driveway sports a bumper sticker proclaiming that “The Second Amendment Is My Gun Permit,” and decorations with the insignias of the U.S. Army and the San Antonio Fire Department adorn an exterior wall. An American flag flying in the yard is black and white, except for a single blue stripe: the thin blue line symbolizing support for law enforcement.
It’s a sizzling August afternoon, and Tony Gonzales, a Republican running for the open seat in Texas’s Twenty-third Congressional District, the vast swing district that encompasses 58,000 square miles from San Antonio to El Paso, presses the doorbell and steps back. After a moment, David Lopez comes to the door.
Gonzales greets him, speaking through a Texas flag–themed face mask. “I’m running for Congress, and I just wanted to drop off some literature and see what issues are important to you.”
Lopez, a sixty-year-old Army veteran and lifelong Republican, steps outside to visit. He’s not wearing a mask. “I don’t like using the mask at all,” he explains, “but I use it when I go out because I’m respecting others.”
Gonzales, a forty-year-old Navy veteran, asks Lopez about his military service. Pointing to a sign over Lopez’s front door proclaiming that “This is a Catholic home,” he notes that he too is Catholic and that he has six kids. And, by the way, he attended a Back the Blue rally in support of law enforcement just this morning.
“It’s going to be a tight race,” Gonzales says, “and it’s going to be all about who’s working harder.”
After a few minutes, they pose together for a photo, and Lopez says Gonzales can count on his support. The scene is an important but quotidian encounter between candidate and courted, one of dozens today. But in a year when nothing is ordinary, the decision to knock on doors—a staple of retail politics in normal times—represents Republicans’ and Democrats’ divergent approaches to campaigning during a pandemic.
Gonzales is trying to squeeze out every vote in a tight race for the Twenty-third, a majority Hispanic chunk of South and West Texas that has swung back and forth between the parties several times over the past decade and a half, a relative rarity in this age of gerrymandering. In Bexar County, the district encircles San Antonio like a left thumb and forefinger that don’t quite touch. Here, near the tip of the thumb, Gonzales and his campaign manager, Michael Blair, are searching for supporters using a list of people whose voting history suggests they might lean Republican. These San Antonians have voted only in general elections, or perhaps in one primary in the last decade.
None of the people who answer their doors appear to recognize his name, but they seem glad to see him and unworried about talking to someone at their door during the pandemic. None of them are wearing masks, and one shakes his hand. Gonzales has the streets to himself: his Democratic opponent, Gina Ortiz Jones, is running a nearly all-virtual campaign.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Texas in March, shortly after the primaries, it upended candidates’ expectations for the next eight months of campaigning. The spread of the coronavirus has forced the cancellation of many of the festivals, rodeos, and parades where candidates would normally greet voters. The public health reasons became even more obvious after President Trump announced he had tested positive in October: without proper precautions, rallies and meetings could become super-spreader events. And knocking on people’s doors, widely agreed to be the most effective means of campaigning, could anger pandemic-wary voters or expose canvassers to the coronavirus. But forgoing all in-person contact with the public carries its own set of political risks.
“The calculation you have to make is, do you risk upsetting somebody that you’ve come to their door, or do you put your best foot forward and swing for the ball and run a traditional campaign?” says Jordan Berry, an Austin-based Republican consultant. For many candidates, the answer to that question is a function of which political party they represent. Berry’s clients have been knocking on doors since May, and other Republicans have held meet and greets and spoken at rallies of various sizes. Democrats, on the other hand, have shifted largely to virtual operations. They’re banking on the medium becoming the message: that voters will associate them with prudent decision-making and concern for public health.
“In the apocalypse, you can’t go door-to-door,” says Democratic strategist Colin Strother, who is based in Austin. “Or, at least, it would be extraordinarily irresponsible and selfish and thoughtless.”
In San Antonio, Jones and her campaign staff and volunteers have worked almost entirely from home since mid-March, communicating with voters by phone, text, social media and Jones’s weekly “virtual town hall.” Every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Jones sits down on her couch, balances her laptop on a stack of books, and switches on her shadow-reducing ring light. With her terrier mix, Harley, settled at her feet, she launches Zoom and Facebook Live and leads a half-hour discussion of a policy issue such as prescription drug costs or child care. With all questions submitted in advance, the events are subdued affairs compared with the roundtables and town halls the Air Force veteran held during her run for this seat in 2018, when voters could interrogate her face-to-face. Each virtual event ends with a similar benediction: “I hope you stay safe and healthy,” Jones says. “Let us know if you need a yard sign.”
Jones’s campaign two years ago ended in a narrow loss to incumbent Will Hurd, who announced his retirement from Congress last summer. Even after her loss, Jones kept going: knocking on doors in Uvalde and Eagle Pass, shaking hands at the Carrizo Springs–Crystal City football game, and marching in the Fourth of July People’s Parade in El Paso, handing Tootsie Pops to flag-waving spectators. Today her forays in public are limited to brief events where voters can pick up yard signs.