Republicans are seizing on the intensifying debate over coronavirus vaccination passports as part of their strategy for recapturing control of Congress in 2022.
In interviews and conversations with The Hill, GOP strategists and operatives acknowledged the growing eagerness among Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But many are also betting that emerging debates about so-called vaccine passports will help them play on voters’ fears of government overreach and privacy violations.
The idea of vaccine passports has gained increasing attention in recent weeks as eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations has rapidly expanded and Americans begin to see glints of a post-pandemic normal on the horizon. The White House has indicated that it will issue basic guidelines for such programs, though it has also said that it has no plans to create a centralized, federal requirement.
Still, some of the country’s most prominent conservatives have begun to latch on to the emerging possibility of vaccine passports or certificates, seeing such proposals as an extension of their campaign to rally the GOP base in opposition to coronavirus-related restrictions like lockdown orders and mask mandates.
“It’s a political winner,” Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist, said. “They look at it as an all-out assault on personal freedoms and the Constitution, but also, it’s about protecting the average, ordinary Floridian who wants to live their regular day-to-day lives.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisWalt Disney World pauses vaccine mandate after DeSantis signs new legislation Fauci overwhelmed by calls after journal published mistake over beagle experiments DeSantis signs legislation limiting vaccine mandates in Florida MORE is among the Republicans who have come out early against the proposals. He criticized the idea of vaccine passports at a press conference Monday, calling it “unacceptable” for local governments or businesses to require proof of vaccination for people to “participate in normal society.”
On Friday, he signed an executive order banning any future vaccine certificate requirements in Florida, and called on the GOP-controlled state legislature to draft a bill to enshrine such a policy into law.
Republicans are hoping that their early efforts to define vaccine passports as a symbol of government overreach will help counter what Democrats see as their most powerful political weapon in the 2022 midterms: their efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
Democrats are hoping that a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law last month, along with a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure, will help them stave off the typical electoral shellacking that a new president’s party typically sees in the first midterms following his inauguration.
Some Republicans compared the offensive against vaccine passports to the party’s campaign against the Affordable Care Act in the 2010 midterm elections, when the GOP successfully rallied voters in opposition to sweeping health care reforms and government spending under the Obama administration.
That year, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and consequently their majority in the lower chamber.
“It’s not a COVID discussion for Republicans. It’s a freedom discussion. It’s a role-of-government discussion,” one GOP strategist said. “Would I prefer to be having a COVID discussion next year? No. But we want to be having that freedom discussion.”
Republicans need to gain five seats in the House and only one in the Senate next year to recapture their majorities in both chambers, a goal that is well within reach for the GOP.
But Republicans are also defending more Senate seats next year than Democrats, including several open seats in perennial battleground states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. They’re hoping that voter backlash to President BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE and congressional Democrats’ agenda will be enough to power them back to the majority.
Not all in the GOP are confident that opposition to vaccine passports will be a winning issue for them.
“It’s red meat for the base, sure, but this doesn’t help us win back the middle,” one veteran GOP campaign aide told The Hill. “It’s just more of the culture wars ... and it also means talking about COVID instead of the damage being done by Democrats.”
Polling shows that a growing number of Americans have either already received one of the approved coronavirus vaccines or plan to be vaccinated as soon as possible. A Gallup poll released on Tuesday found that roughly 3 in 4 Americans are willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Only about one quarter of respondents — 26 percent — said they are not willing to receive one of the three vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
What’s more, categorically rejecting the notion of vaccine passports or certificates could put many Republicans at odds with the business community that they have longed aligned themselves with.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful trade group that has traditionally backed Republicans, joined several airline trade organizations and labor unions in a letter to White House COVID-19 recovery coordinator Jeff ZientsJeff ZientsOvernight Health Care — Presented by Emergent Biosolutions — 2.6M children vaccinated in first two weeks White House: 10 percent of children aged 5 to 11 have received first shot White House planning to ramp up vaccine production to 1 billion doses a year MORE last month urging the Biden administration to “quickly develop uniform, targeted federal guidance for temporary COVID-19 health credentials (CHC) covering both tests and vaccinations.”
Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe congressional debate over antitrust: It's about time McConnell looks for way out of debt ceiling box Senators make bipartisan push to block 0M weapons sale to Saudis MORE (R-Utah) suggested something of a middle ground when it comes to vaccine passports, saying in an interview on the “Utah Politics” podcast on Friday that private businesses should have the option to use such tools, while insisting that the government should stay away from the issue.
“I think vaccines are good, and I think once people have gotten a vaccine that they have the ability to present credentials to private property owners who might decide they want their customers to have been vaccinated,” Lee said.
“You don’t ever want to get us in a position where our own government is playing any part in the way human beings move within our own borders,” he added. “That’s something the American people, regardless of their political leanings, don’t want.”
Some Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the vaccine passport argument. In particular, they are waiting to see if former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE weighs in on the issue.
“The X-factor in all of this — whether it becomes the big issue for Republicans — is what DJT says about it,” one former Trump campaign official said, referring to the former president’s initials. “The candidates are going to be looking for cues, because he’s still the single most important person in this party.”