Will vaccine passports be biggest campaign issue of 2022?
Partisan battle lines are being drawn around coronavirus vaccine passports in what could become one of the defining issues of the 2022 midterm elections.
A growing number of the Republican Party’s most conservative members have seized on the passport proposals and expected guidance from the White House, blasting them as an example of government overreach that would isolate Americans who choose not to get vaccinated and violate the privacy of those who do.
But that strategy carries some risks for the GOP, potentially giving Democrats a platform to tout their response to the coronavirus outbreak while simultaneously forcing Republicans to navigate the politics of the pandemic well into 2022.
“It’s red meat for the base, sure, but this doesn’t help us win back the middle,” one veteran GOP campaign aide said. “It’s just more of the culture wars … and it also means talking about COVID instead of the damage being done by Democrats.”
The vaccine passports have become a topic of increasing discussion among the GOP’s most conservative members, who have cast the proposals as an opportunity for the government to assert control over the daily lives of Americans.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), the controversial congresswoman whose conspiratorial remarks have drawn criticism even from some in her own party, this week dubbed the passports President Biden’s “mark of the beast” and called the proposal a form of “corporate communism.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a steadfast ally of former President Trump and prospective 2024 presidential candidate, vowed this week to take executive action to ban businesses and local governments from implementing vaccine passport policies. He also urged the Republican-controlled state legislature to draft a more permanent measure against such requirements.
“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said at a press conference Monday.
Republicans need to pick up five seats in the House and only one seat in the Senate next year to recapture majorities in both chambers.
While conventional wisdom dictates the president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in the first midterm after they are sworn in, Republicans still face a challenging Senate map that will require them to defend 20 seats to the Democrats’ 14.
Republicans are hoping for something of a repeat of the 2010 midterm elections, when voter backlash against the Affordable Care Act and government spending under the Obama administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress helped hand the GOP a 63-seat gain in the House.
“The health care discussion is why Republicans took over Congress [in 2010],” one Republican strategist said. “If we’re going to have that discussion again, I think things are probably going to shake out in our favor.”
But Democrats say that Republican critics of Biden’s coronavirus-related policies and the proposed vaccine passports are fundamentally misreading the electorate.
Biden has consistently received high marks in polling for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic since taking office in January. And despite some early reluctance about receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, a majority of Americans are now on board.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Tuesday found that 61 percent of adults have either received their first dose of the vaccine or intend to do so as soon as possible — up from only 34 percent in December. Meanwhile, only 13 percent of respondents said they will avoid getting vaccinated altogether.
And as eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations has rapidly expanded, some Democrats see the implementation of vaccine passport or certificate systems as a way to stimulate business while reassuring wary consumers that it’s safe to return to normal pre-pandemic activities, like indoor dining and traveling.
“The vaccine is popular. The president is also popular, and his policies around COVID-19 are popular,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “This is the Republicans grasping at straws. They’re trying to find something to create mistrust and suspicion around.”
“That’s hard to do when the president is popular and people want to reopen the country,” he continued. “So if there is a tool that can enable people to do that, it’s going to be received well by most Americans.”
The opposition to vaccine passports is the latest front in a yearlong effort by conservatives to rally their supporters around restrictions put in place since the outset of the pandemic. Throughout 2020, some of the most prominent Republicans, including Trump, railed against government-mandated lockdowns and mask mandates.
Biden, meanwhile, promised strong federal action that he said would help bring the pandemic to an end. Reinish said that Biden’s message clearly proved more successful than that of the GOP.
“After last year, I don’t think Republicans want to spend another election cycle talking about COVID,” he said. “It clearly hasn’t been a winning issue for them.”
Another reason it may prove difficult for Republicans to attack Biden and congressional Democrats over the implementation of vaccine passports is that there are no plans for a federal mandate requiring them.
While the White House is expected to issue some basic guidance on vaccine certification, the Biden administration is leaving the ultimate decision on such programs to the private sector and the states.
“There are a couple key principles that we are working from,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing on Monday. “One is that there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database, and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
So far, the only state to roll out any sort of passport program is New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced the launch of “Excelsior Pass,” a free mobile app that will allow people to show businesses that they have either tested negative for COVID-19 or been vaccinated. Even at that, residents are not required to download the app.
Polling on the prospect of vaccine passports is scant, for now. A survey by travel app TripIt of 3,200 of its users found that 81 percent of respondents supported some sort of digital health passport to provide proof of vaccination in order to travel.
For some Republicans, talking about vaccination passports isn’t a winning message in itself.
One Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns said that any discussion of the issue needs to be wrapped into a larger debate over the role of the federal government or the power of businesses to dictate personal health decisions.
“You’re going to have more things that come up like this beyond the passport,” the strategist said. “How much of a role should medical professionals have in making policy? How comfortable are you with expanding the role of government in your daily life?”
What’s more, the strategist said, “it’s great for fundraising. It appeals to the base.”