OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall's audience of about 40 people packed a banquet room in a Kansas City-area bistro. No one wore a mask during his lunchtime remarks about the coronavirus. The Republican nominee for Kansas' open Senate seat put one on later while talking to masked reporters but dropped it for a moment, saying, “I can’t breathe.”
A few days earlier, Democrat Barbara Bollier invited half a dozen local officials and activists to her first in-person event of the fall campaign. They stood in a socially distanced circle outside an elementary school empty of students in Manhattan in northeast Kansas.
In the polar opposite approaches to campaigning, awkwardness often seems the only common ground. Marshall and Bollier, however, have another shared experience: medical school.
At another time in U.S. history that might have meant the two doctors would be closely aligned on how best to prevent the spread of disease. But in this one, it only highlights how partisanship is shaping campaigns' messages on public health.
Across the country, Democrats are largely abiding by health officials’ guidance, using the moment to model safe practices and signal respect for experts. Republicans are regularly flouting that caution, using it as a moment to celebrate what they view as personal freedom.
In accepting the GOP's renomination Thursday, President Donald Trump defied his own administration’s pandemic guidelines to speak for more than an hour to a tightly packed, largely maskless crowd. Vice President Mike Pence spoke to an unmasked convention audience that afterward crowded together to snap photos and shake the candidate’s hand. He obliged at least once.
Similar scenes are playing out in other states. In North Carolina, the Republican candidate for governor, Dan Forest, has held so many big, indoor rallies and insisted on shaking hands so often that incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, put out a television ad featuring a doctor imploring Forest to “please stop.”
The split extended to voting in Kansas' primary earlier in August. Roughly two-thirds of Republicans voted in-person, while roughly two-thirds of Democrats used mail-in ballots.
Bollier has Democrats hoping they can win a Kansas Senate seat for the first time since 1932. The retired anesthesiologist is a state legislator and former Republican, who left the party in 2018, saying it no longer represented her values and that's partly because of Trump.
She's run a largely virtual campaign, a caution she says is guided by both her background and personal experience. A retired minister-friend was infected this spring and nearly died, she says.
“I cannot understand why a virus is being politicized,” she said during a recent interview. “It is public health, period.”
But Marshall, an obstetrician who gave up his medical practice for Congress and has aligned himself closely with Trump, doesn't see the issue as so settled. He says he's taking an anti-malaria drug promoted by Trump to prevent infection, even as regulators warn the risks outweigh the benefits.
While his campaign tries to hold events outdoors and follow social distancing rules, the congressman has gone to at least a few events where guidance on masks and distancing isn’t followed.
Marshall doesn't argue against the effectiveness of masks and says he “respects” the virus. But he acknowledges sometimes his decisions are a response to cultural and political factors.
“I tell you what, if I walk into rural Kansas with a mask on, people look at me like I’ve got three eyes or something, right?” Marshall said after his recent indoor Kansas City-area speech.
Experts don't have much sympathy for this explanation. Dr. Dana Hawkinson, director of infection control for the University of Kansas Health System, said public health experts’ advice is so well known by now that not following it is “a conscious choice.”
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss said while Republicans are flouting public health rules, Democrats are “staying focused first and foremost on health and safety, not politics.”
But mocking the caution as cowardice, the Senate Republican campaign committee sent new face masks to several leading Democratic Senate candidates in Arizona, Maine, Colorado and Montana.
GOP spokesman Jesse Hunt said Democratic candidates like Bollier are simply following orders of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to “dodge” voters and hard questions about their views.
As in many states, the coronavirus hit Kansas' urban and suburban areas — the hubs of Democratic and swing voters — first and hardest, as rural areas largely just felt the economic repercussions.
Schools in Kansas City and Wichita, the state's largest city, have suspended fall sports and moved classes for many students online. Masks are common in urban and suburban strip malls.
In campaigning in a mask and at a distance, Bollier is largely following the same precautions as the voters she needs to win.
“I’m looking for someone who follows the science,” said Karla Hagemeister, a 45-year-old Democrat and president of the Manhattan, Kansas, school board, who attended Bollier’s recent event.
Marshall's sprawling western and central Kansas district covers a handful of counties that haven't reported a new coronavirus case in two weeks. Local mask mandates are few, and some rural schools restarted classes on normal mid-August schedules.
“When I meet people for the first time, they want to shake my hand,” Marshall said. “They want to look me in the eye. They want to see my facial expression.”
Kansas has no statewide mask mandate or restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
The rural-urban divide on the virus may be closing. Coronavirus cases in Kansas have almost doubled in the past six weeks. And Marshall’s congressional district isn’t insulated. Its 60-plus counties have more confirmed and probable cases per 100,000 residents than the rest of the state, largely because of outbreaks in meatpacking plants this spring.
Bollier has started to make Marshall's virus response part of her appeal to moderates. She's hit him for his decision to take hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug touted by Trump.
“When you go, essentially, rogue, taking medications, that’s not leadership,” Bollier said.
But Marshall says he’s familiar with the drug, having used and prescribed it for Christian mission trips. Asked whether he prescribed it for himself, he said, “I’ll take the Fifth on that one.”
Also contributing was Lisa Mascaro in Washington.
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