Governors in hot water over their coronavirus response

Governors from both parties are increasingly finding themselves in the hot seat over their response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts who’s up for reelection in 2022, has become the latest state leader to face criticism in recent months. He joins Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York and Gavin Newsom (D) of California as one of the high-profile governors to see his reputation take a noticeable hit amid the public health crisis, posing a potential challenge to his future political ambitions.

The recent turn of events presents a stark contrast to the early months of the pandemic, when many governors — Cuomo in particular — gained positive media exposure for their responses to COVID-19. Most governors, in fact, had higher approval ratings than former President Trump at the beginning of the crisis.

“Some people are looking for outward, visible displays of strong leadership from a governor. During a crisis that’s often what they want,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “That’s how we explain Cuomo’s extraordinarily high ratings when everything was actually, objectively quite horrible.”

Now, the mounting political backlash in states like Massachusetts, California and New York is offering fresh ammo to the governors’ opponents.

Baker has come under growing scrutiny for his handling of the vaccine signups in Massachusetts as its residents try to register for appointments, only to be met with technical difficulties.

The governor conceded that the state employees in charge of the website did not do an adequate job.

“My hair’s on fire about the whole thing,” Baker said in an interview with Boston Public Radio this week. “I can’t even begin to tell you how pissed off I am, and people are working really hard to get it fixed.”

Baker’s approval rating had already appeared to slip slightly in a December Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, with 72 percent of respondents saying they approved of how the governor was handling the pandemic. That rating was down 9 points from a poll in June that showed Baker with an 81 percent approval rating.

Baker has not confirmed whether he will run for reelection in 2022, but Democrats in the state are already on the offensive.

“He’s our target,” said Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “During the Trump presidency, [the president] would do everything to distract people from everything that was happening and it sucked up all of the media attention.”

“What the governor is reacting to now is he can’t mismanage now. He can’t make mistakes and not have the public notice,” he added.

Baker’s not the only one drawing fire ahead of 2022. Cuomo, who has already announced he’s running for reelection for a fourth term, is facing potentially one of the biggest crises of his political career after admitting his administration held some responsibility for withholding data on coronavirus-related deaths in New York nursing homes.

Though Cuomo has drawn bipartisan criticism over the scandal, the governor’s approval rating in the state has yet to take a hit. A Siena College Research Institute poll released on Tuesday — a day before yet more allegations came out against Cuomo related to the nursing home data — showed the governor with a 56-percent favorability rating among registered voters. Meanwhile, 61 percent said they approved specifically of the way he was handling the pandemic.

And despite the backlash, Democrats say they are confident that the governor’s mansion will remain blue after 2022.

“Let’s be mindful that it is New York,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner. “It’s not like this is a Republican pickup opportunity.”

“I’m not downplaying anything,” Turner added. “New York and California often get put under a magnifying glass, whether it’s good things that are happening or bad things that are happening. There was a lot of attention paid to Cuomo and Newsom early on in the pandemic, and then again, people are paying a lot of attention to them now.” 

But Republicans have nonetheless been quick to target Cuomo and Newsom, who’s facing his own criticism in California.

“If Democrats are forced to save deep blue state governors like Newsom and Cuomo from their COVID scandals, governors like Tony Evers, Laura Kelly, and Janet Mills must be watching in horror,” Republican Governors Association spokesman Jesse Hunt said in a statement to The Hill. “People want leadership and a measured approach in a time of crisis and Democrat governors have failed on both accounts throughout the pandemic.”

Newsom has come under criticism from California Republicans over statewide lockdowns and their effect on the economy. He has seen his approval rating drop from 64 percent in September to just 46 percent in late January, according to a poll conducted by the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, and is now facing a growing recall effort.

Supporters of the recall say they already have the 1.5 million signatures needed to begin the process by next month, but the signatures need to be verified first. They face an uphill climb in the deeply blue state, which has become more progressive than it was during the last recall in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was elected governor as a result of a recall effort.

But while the GOP may have difficulties winning in a traditional gubernatorial contest, Republicans could have better luck on the ballot in a recall. As part of that process, voters would be asked two questions on the ballot: whether they support recalling Newsom, and if so, who should replace him. Whichever candidate earns a simple majority of the votes wins.

A Berkley IGS poll released earlier this month showed 36 percent of registered voters saying they support the recall effort, while 45 percent said they would oppose it. Nineteen percent said they were undecided. Trump lost the state in the general election with only 34 percent support.

Republicans are quick to draw a contrast between Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has taken the opposite approach to the pandemic, aggressively pushing for reopenings while Democrats like Newsom favored statewide shutdowns.

“In a lot of DeSantis’s counties, people are in in-person schools and the economy is rebounding,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Newsom is starting from, how shall I say? Scratch.”

DeSantis’s job approval has also appeared to have rebounded after taking a hit during the first part of the pandemic. A Florida Chamber of Commerce survey released last month showed 54 percent of the state’s likely voters saying they approved of his job performance.

Yet both California and Florida have similar caseloads when taking into account the population differences. California has reported roughly 3.5 million COVID-19 cases, while Florida has reported roughly 1.82 million.

And DeSantis has not gone without his own criticism. The Florida governor faced backlash earlier this week when he threatened to divert vaccines from communities that criticized his administration’s distribution plans. Critics have also accused him of being too lax on coronavirus restrictions at the height of the pandemic.

“He comes across as lacking empathy and I think that’s hurt him,” Jewett said.

Still, DeSantis’s approach to the pandemic did not hurt Republicans in Florida last November. Trump won the state and the House GOP picked up seats.

But Democrats say Florida will still be very much in play during DeSantis’s reelection next year.

“Anybody who’s thinking that Democrats should be writing off Florida is absolutely wrong,” Turner said. “It’s a competitive state and I think it’s going to remain competitive. 

Tags 2022 Andrew Cuomo California Charlie Baker Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Florida Gavin Newsom Governor Janet Mills Massachusetts New York reelection Ron DeSantis Tony Evers
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