Rep. Dan Crenshaw has spent much of the pandemic playing down the threat of the coronavirus, mocking Democrats and health professionals for overreaction, and broadly using Covid-19 as an opportunity to, as they say, own the libs.
But the outspoken Texas freshman does not serve in a solidly Republican district, and the explosion of cases in his hometown of Houston, along with his dismissal of the threat, has become a critical liability in the last weeks of his reelection campaign.
Sima Ladjevardian, the Democratic candidate running to represent Texas’s 2nd Congressional District — which includes much of northern and western Houston — is out Tuesday with a seven-figure ad buy going after Crenshaw for his handling of the coronavirus and health care. In mid-July, as the pandemic was ripping through Houston, more than 100 doctors took the extraordinary step of condemning Crenshaw publicly for his reckless refusal to wear masks and his downplaying the crisis to his millions of followers.
The race is one of seven in Texas the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting, and Crenshaw’s seat is one of five in Texas the DCCC is aiming to flip. Ladjevardian’s contest will be more challenging, though, than some others in the Lone Star State; while her suburban Houston district is the kind that is trending demographically in Democrats’ favor, Crenshaw has a big fundraising advantage and more name recognition than most elected officials since becoming a national conservative star over the last two years. His eyepatch and aggressive rhetoric have been ubiquitous on Fox News as he has fashioned himself into something of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the right.
Crenshaw won his election to Congress in 2018 by 7.2 percentage points, but Beto O’Rourke lost his Senate race in that same district by just 1 point. The demographics of the district have only grown more favorable since.
The 30-second spot, which will air between now and Election Day on cable, broadcast, and digital, will be the Ladjevardian’s campaign main negative ad buy of the cycle. Titled “Doctors,” it opens with footage of Crenshaw in early March downplaying the effectiveness of masks, followed by four doctors expressing frustration and anger over what they see as lies spread by the representative. “He’s playing politics with people’s lives,” says Dr. Kanene Ubesie, a general surgeon in Houston. A narrator then says Crenshaw’s lies began before the pandemic, when he voted against a House bill that wanted to lower drug costs. “Dan Crenshaw is not the leader that we need right now,” concludes another local physician, Dr. Hina Pandya, before cutting to Ladjevardian.
(Crenshaw says he supported House bill H.R 19 to lower drug prices, which would make it easier for generic drugs to come to market, but he voted against the Democrat-backed bill to rein in drug prices in December —H.R. 3— which he claimed would hurt innovation for new cures.)
The Ladjevardian campaign says it was not expecting Crenshaw’s coronavirus pandemic response to play such a major role in their race but that his continued rhetoric and behavior amid the rising death toll in Texas, combined with all the anger they heard from health care leaders, elevated it as a central focus. When Texas’s hospitalization rate started spiking after Memorial Day, Crenshaw dismissed it, claiming the hospitalizations were “really not a lot. … We’re so far away from being in over-capacity or even close to it that it’s laughable.” Around the same time when a Harris County judge warned that Texas may be on the brink of a disaster, Crenshaw slammed her for “fear-mongering.”
Feeling anxious about the congressman’s denials, in mid-July, as The Intercept first reported, more than 100 doctors, medical professionals, and emergency room physicians in the Houston area signed their name to a letter condemning Crenshaw for spreading misinformation about Covid-19. The Texas coronavirus death rate was rising faster in July than during all the previous months of the pandemic.
In their letter, the doctors blasted Crenshaw for “undermin[ing] the advice of our public health experts at every turn — enabling millions of his followers to the same.” His mixed messaging, they argued, left health care workers “handicapped in our mission” to protect Texans from the start of the pandemic. One of the letter’s signatories — Dr. Bich-May Nguyen — appears in the Ladjevardian campaign’s new ad.
Ladjevardian tells The Intercept her campaign felt this was the right ad to create because having someone like Crenshaw who has “undermined” doctors’ authority and “put them even more at risk and not listened to them when they begged, is very personal to me.” Ladjevardian wanted to demonstrate she “respect[s] these doctors” and that “they are our real heroes.”
She pointed to a GOP event from August, where Crenshaw appeared in photos posted online not wearing a mask. An Austin resident filed a complaint about the gathering, and Travis County is now investigating it. A Crenshaw spokesperson told the San Antonio Express-News that the congressman wore a mask except when he was speaking “and for a few, brief photos that were taken outside.”
Throughout the pandemic, Crenshaw emerged as one of Trump’s most ardent defenders regarding his public health response; Ladjevardian pointed to Crenshaw’s reaction just earlier this month regarding Trump’s comments to journalist Bob Woodward in February and March downplaying the coronavirus. The president “never uses the right words, let’s just be honest here, but it’s also pretty clear his intent was very good,” Crenshaw had said. “Do not make people panic.” In a subsequent interview, Crenshaw told local TV news host Khambrel Marshall that Trump’s comments were “clumsy” but that his point about minimizing panic reflected what Trump had been saying publicly. Crenshaw also argued that Democrats, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been downplaying Covid-19 too.
It’s evident that Crenshaw has grasped the political downsides of his Covid-19 dismissiveness, as he’s been touting his pandemic response in recent weeks, noting for example that he distributed 50,000 masks and advocated for more funding for testing sites in Houston. In July, he sent out a mailer where he defended himself against some of Ladjevardian’s specific attacks, including claiming that his early March comments about mask effectiveness were just reflecting federal encouragement to reserve them for health care workers. It’s true that at the time many public health officials and news organizations were misleading the public about the efficacy of masks. In February, for instance, Vox reported that “most health experts” it spoke with said “there’s no good evidence to support the use of face masks for preventing this disease in the general population.” Crenshaw, however, continued with that theme for months, ultimately drawing the public rebuke from Houston medical professionals.
In response to the grassroots letter from physicians criticizing Crenshaw in July, a group of 75 doctors organized a counterletter, claiming the congressman “has been a steadfast partner in our efforts to protect public health throughout this pandemic.” As the Texas Tribune noted, three signatories are current and former GOP representatives. Ladjevardian told The Intercept that the counterletter was “a joke.”