April 6, 2020

Coronavirus Keeps Doctors in Runoff Battles
in Public Eye as Virus Renders Vote Irrelevant

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

A pair of Texas Republicans are getting potential boosts from the coronavirus in primary runoffs in legislative and congressional districts where they've garnered attention that the state's other overtime contenders couldn't buy as a result of their day jobs and different roles that they've had in the confrontation with the coronavirus.

State Rep. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville and Ronny Jackson of Amarillo are both attempting to overcome substantial round one deficits in legislative and congressional runoffs in districts where they're able to speak with authority as medical doctors on the only issue that matters anymore in a state that's become a killing field for COVID-19 in the past few weeks.

All of the Texans who advanced to the May 26 runoff election as Super Tuesday runner-ups got breaks when Governor Greg Abbott bought them time for comebacks by pushing the overtime vote back seven weeks to July 14. The Republican governor appeared to be postponing the election for the sake of voters who expected to cast their second-round votes at the polls.

But the delay - with the possible exceptions of Jackson and Sheffield - hasn't appeared to be helping anyone on either side of the Texas overtime ballot in ways that are evident in runoff battles that are invisible now beyond contact with voters through direct mail, phone calls and social media that rarely if ever mentions opponents.

Conservatives who are attempting to come from behind in the OT vote are finding some measure of inspiration in the dramatic turnaround that U.S. Senator Ted Cruz had in his first bid for the post with a 24-point swing in a runoff that had been shoved back a couple of months by a court fight over redistricting. But Cruz seized effectively on the added time to build name identification that he needed to offset a monstrous money gap that then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst had as a wealthy first-round leader in the open Senate contest.

That won't be possible this time around with the public preoccupied with a common enemy that no one can see as it rolls through neighborhoods and communities that are growing more paralyzed by anxiety and fear with each passing day and no end in sight.

But physicians who competing in overtime like Sheffield and Jackson stand out from the pack more than anyone could have imagined at the outset of campaigns as a function of their professional status as medical professionals in the midst of the worst public health emergency in modern times. Sheffield as a prime example confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Coryell County as the chief public health authority there. He's been a chief source of guidance and advice on ways to combat the spread of the disease - and he came to the defense of local officials last week in the face of criticism that they'd received for the imposition of restrictions similar to those that have been in place in the major Texas cities and counties for the past three weeks.

Jackson is even more unique as a former personal physician for President Donald Trump who touted that connection in an interview that a conservative talk show host at a Lubbock radio station conducted last week. Trump had scored an eleventh-hour endorsement from his famous ex-patient before landing a spot in a runoff with 20 percent of the initial vote in a 15-candidate field that Josh Winegarner led with 39 percent.

Jackson had already owed Trump a debt of gratitude for attempting to make him the head of the Veterans Administration in a move that backfired when the nominee failed to secure U.S. Senate confirmation. But Jackson returned the favors by showering the president with superlatives for his performance during the coronavirus crisis in a rare campaign-related sidebar.

Sheffield, who trailed conservative challenger Shelby Slawson by 16 points in the initial election on March 3, was in the local news three weeks later when he announced the first positive test in Coryell County. Sheffield had been in Austin just two weeks before the novel disease surfaced in his hometown for the first and last House committee hearing on the coronavirus before it chased most of the state into hiding. The fourth-term lawmaker was featured in a picture with a statewide news report doing a fist pump with a state health official during a break in the panel inquiry.

But Sheffield has turned his campaign web site and social media pages into coronavirus information resources for voters including many who he's treated in the past as a former chief of staff at the hospital in the largest city in the county where he's based.

Sheffield - an establishment Republican who hard-line conservatives have viewed as a closet liberal - has run the risk of offending the hard right's wrath even more last month when he defended the social isolation standards that were put in place before Abbott implemented the same basic policy at the statewide level last week.

"I don’t blame them for trying to do something to help the situation," Sheffield said in a Facebook message in a reference to the imposition of a stay-at-home order in Coryell County after the first positive test there. "I only ask the the general public not place blame on county leaders for working on a problem that only in hindsight will we know which measures worked or didn’t."

The local decree that took effect on March 18 has appeared to be relatively successful up to now based on the coronavirus rate in Coryell County compared to other parts of the Texas with populaitons that are similar in size or larger. With five positive tests as of Sunday night, only one of every 15,000 Coryell residents have come down with the disease. eople testing positive in Coryel . 

One of 6,000 people in Bell County have tested positive for COVID-19 with 58 confirmed cases. The coronavirus rates in the five largest Texas counties are about half that high. But Coryell County has a larger population than all of the other nine Texas counties that have had at least five people catch the coronavirus.


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