AUSTIN, Texas – When the coronavirus pandemic slammed the U.S. economy this spring, Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther became an overnight symbol of rebellion against lockdown measures, spending two days in a Texas jail for refusing to close her doors.
Nearly $500,000 poured into a donation fund set up by conservative activists. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz made a show of getting his hair cut at Luther’s salon. She flew to Michigan to rally with shutdown protesters and launched a run for the Texas Senate, hammering Republican Gov. Greg Abbott over virus restrictions.
Her race in a deeply red and rural district is now a small test of what other Republican candidates nationwide are counting on with just five weeks before Election Day -- lingering voter resentment of lockdown orders to help boost them into office, at a time when President Donald Trump’s reelection may hinge on persuading voters that the worst is behind America.
“I stood up for you, I went to jail and I’ll do it again and again,” Luther told a room of voters this past week in a small town outside Fort Worth, in an event livestreamed on her Facebook page. Referring to Abbott, she said, “I’ll sleep on that man’s porch, bring the media until he opens up Texas.”
With the U.S. death toll from the virus at more than 200,000 and counting, Trump is eager to frame his race against Democrat Joe Biden, the former vice president, on the Supreme Court vacancy and on an aggressive message of law and order in the aftermath of protests over racial injustice.
But some GOP candidates, including Luther, want voters to remember the early weeks and months of closed restaurants and enforced lockdowns as the country is now slowly reopening and the unemployment rate is improving, though still high at 8.4%.
In Minnesota, Republican Senate candidate Jason Lewis has made anger over coronavirus measures a cornerstone of an underdog challenge against Democratic incumbent Tina Smith, staking his hopes on bringing out voters in rural areas where mom-and-pop businesses were hit hard by the shutdown.
In the race for North Carolina governor, Republican challenger Dan Forest, the state's lieutenant governor, has run hard against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders on COVID-19 restrictions, saying he wants to replace "the current culture of fear with clear goals and a path forward.”
A majority of Americans — 69% — say they are still at least somewhat worried about themselves or their family members being infected with the virus, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Eighty-three percent of Democrats say they are at least somewhat concerned about the virus, compared with 55% of Republicans.
There is skepticism that angst over lockdown measures is enough for underdog GOP candidates to narrow the gap. When shutdown protests began in Ohio in April, a Columbus Dispatch photo of state Senate candidate Melissa Ackinson yelling through glass doors of the statehouse became one of the most widely shared images of demonstrations around the country. A few weeks later, she was easily defeated in her primary race.
In Texas, where Democrats are running closer races than they have in a generation in a longtime GOP stronghold, GOP incumbents in battleground seats have focused on the recovery rather than rail against past lockdowns. “With every day that passes, people are getting back to normal. I think there was voter anger in July, but I don’t think it’s anywhere as considerable as it was then,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in Texas.
Luther, who did not respond to a request for an interview, is one of five candidates running in what is expected to be a low-turnout special election Tuesday to fill a seat vacated by a GOP legislator running for Congress. Her campaign received a $1 million loan from billionaire Texas oilman Tim Dunn, whose conservative group Empower Texans is one of the biggest political spenders in Texas politics and a critic of Abbott.
In Minnesota, Lewis recently railed against coronavirus restrictions to a small crowd of a couple dozen supporters in Stillwater, which is one of the areas outside the Twin Cities where both he and Trump need to do well to flip what has become an unlikely battleground state.
Trump narrowly lost Minnesota in 2016, and Lewis, a staunch supporter of the president, has made opposition to restrictions and face mask mandates a centerpiece of his campaign. He has sued Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, claiming that the restrictions on public gatherings have hindered his ability to campaign.
“The lockdown has changed everything," Lewis said. “The virus changed everything. And the angst that these draconian lockdowns imposed on Minnesota, especially in greater Minnesota but really all over the state, I believe was the game changer."
Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that it was Jason Lewis, not Tina Smith, who criticized coronavirus restrictions.