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Ebola 'Sucks The Oxygen' Out Of Election Coverage

Bill Zeeble
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins says coordinating the Ebola response leaves little time to campaign for reelection.

On Monday, early voting begins in Texas.  If you haven’t heard a lot about it, that might be because the evolving Ebola crisis in Dallas has overwhelmed news coverage -- even in one campaign where the Ebola response seems to be the issue.

At noon Thursday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins began taping a radio interview with NPR’s Melissa Block.  

As the public official coordinating the local response to Ebola, Jenkins had been on the go since 4:30 a.m.: mapping out strategy, appearing on TV shows, attending meetings with hospital staff, and coordinating with state and federal partners.

Republican Ron Natinsky, who wants to unseat Jenkins, has accused him of using Ebola to grandstand and of doing a poor job of protecting the public’s health.

“I think we should have initially quarantined the people who were suspected as possibly being in contact,” Natinsky said.

He believes the quarantine should have included Jenkins, who drove family members of the first Ebola victim in his car, and then entered their home.

“[Jenkins] should have been put in quarantine until we were sure he was not carrying the virus,” Natinsky said.

Jenkins mostly ignores his opponent’s jabs.

“My thoughts are that it’s not about politics or reelection right now," Jenkins said Thursday. "It’s about the public health.”

While Natinisky has tried to make the Ebola response an issue in his uphill campaign, the media is barely writing about that. In fact, most local and statewide candidates are getting far less coverage than usual.

In Collin County Thursday, it appeared that just one reporter covered an appearance by Leticia Van de Putte, the Democrat running for lieutenant governor.

Few, if any, reporters followed Republican candidate for governor Greg Abbott in Dallas on Wednesday.

SMU political science professor Matthew Wilson says Ebola has sucked the oxygen out of the room for other stories, including politics.

“Which means if somebody’s trying to drive a particular political story right now it’s really hard to get people’s attention off Ebola," Wilson said. "Which tends to kind of freeze the races where they were before this story broke."

Wilson’s SMU colleague, Professor Cal Jillson, says that’s bad news for Democrat Wendy Davis, who may have been gaining on Abbott when the Ebola crisis began.

“This might have squashed that because the people’s attention is gone and Greg Abbott has $30 million to close out the last weeks," Jillson said. "She had $5.7 million a couple of weeks ago so she doesn’t have the cash to close out the race."

Jillson says candidates will have to get their messages out through expensive broadcast commercials if news media aren’t providing free exposure.    

Jillson says that if the public continues to focus on Ebola, fair-weather voters might stay away from the polls and the Nov. 4 election could produce a historic low turnout.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.