In Texas, though, they face additional challenges: Democratic candidates — who have been more cautious about campaigning during the pandemic than Republicans — were forced into a slow start ahead of the March 1 primary as the Omicron wave made a winter’s worth of campaign events all but impossible. And the new voting law, Democrats say, has made voting by mail — a procedure widely embraced by the party in 2020 — much harder this year.
“There’s already a lack of voter enthusiasm because this year was supposed to feel so much better, and it hasn’t felt better,” said former Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, the progressive front-runner in the Democratic primary for the 35th Congressional District, an open seat that stretches from Austin to San Antonio.
“We are hearing from voters just a lot more unease about what the voting hours are, what the voting location is, what do they need to do to vote. We’re getting a lot more questions,” he said.
Pandemic forces a shift
The pandemic has continued to force Democratic candidates to adjust their campaign tactics.
But most campaigns said they don’t want a repeat of 2020, when many Democratic candidates — including the party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden — suspended all in-person activity, including door-knocking, for much of the election.
Casar, the favorite in the 35th District Democratic primary, which also includes state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, said his campaign provides staffers with KN95 masks and offers paid Covid-19 leave. It requires masks at most events, even when they take place outdoors. But Casar said he has not dialed back the pace.
He said after running for re-election to the Austin City Council and working on a ballot initiative in 2020, largely relying on phone banks and virtual events, he has found that this year “people have been excited to have somebody knock on their door.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are also confronting the impact of the Republican-led voting law that targets urban areas and that elections experts say disenfranchises people of color most severely.
The changes already have resulted in higher-than-usual rejection rates for absentee ballot applications. And some counties have begun to report new problems: Hundreds of mailed ballots flagged for rejection over ID requirements.
Voters also have to include a Texas identification number or a partial Social Security number when returning their mail-in ballots — despite having already provided similar identifying information when they applied for the ballot in the first place. If they have neither number, they must also indicate that.
In many major counties, nearly half of all mail-in ballots were being flagged for rejection at one point in mid-February.
Rathod, O’Rourke’s campaign manager, described the new law as “deliberate voter suppression” and said that so far, “it’s working exactly as Greg Abbott and the Republicans wanted it to work.”
“You’re seeing mail-in ballots being rejected,” he said. “The requirements are designed to be onerous and confusing, especially to newly registered voters, first-time voters, the elderly — you know, just about anyone that is trying to vote.”
Rathod also said the campaign has enlisted nearly 50,000 volunteers and is turning to that network to learn about hurdles Texans are encountering as they attempt to vote.
“We’ve been leveraging that,” Rathod said, “get feedback and an understanding of what’s happening with voters as it relates to these laws.”
CNN’s Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.
Democrats in Texas confront twin challenges of pandemic and restrictive new voting law