GOP governors divided over response to COVID-19 surge

Republican governors are increasingly split over how to respond to the latest coronavirus surge as the delta variant wreaks havoc on parts of the country.

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisSchools without mask mandate 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks: CDC study Texas limits business with Ben & Jerry's over Israel move Overnight Health Care — Presented by Indivior — CDC panel approves boosters for some, but not based on jobs MORE (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have sparred with localities in their states eager to impose mask mandates in venues, including schools, Arkansas Gov. Asa HutchinsonAsa HutchinsonDozens of Republican governors call for meeting with Biden on border surge The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Biden's .5 trillion plan will likely have to shrink Sunday shows - Manchin says he won't vote for .5 trillion bill MORE (R) said last week that he regretted signing a ban on mask mandates in schools and asked the state legislature to reverse the decision. 

“Well, I signed it at the time because our cases were at a very low point. I knew it’d be overridden by the legislature if I didn’t sign it ... I already eliminated our statewide mask mandate,” Hutchinson said. “I signed it for those reasons that our cases were at a low point. Everything has changed now. And yes, in hindsight I wish that had not become law.”

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Meanwhile, divisions among Republican governors are also apparent when it comes to vaccine rhetoric.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay IveyKay IveyDozens of Republican governors call for meeting with Biden on border surge President Biden's vaccination plan is constitutional — and necessary Teenage Alabama city councilman who voted against mask mandate tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R) has voiced her frustrations with the unvaccinated, marking a departure from DeSantis, who said last week that the news media was being judgmental of the unvaccinated who have contracted COVID-19. 

“Folks supposed to have common sense, but it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” Ivey said last month. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

Ivey’s remarks earned her praise from President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE at the time, who said “thank god” she and some other conservatives have started pushing for more vaccinations.

Biden also commended Hutchinson for his handling of the pandemic in Arkansas during a call Monday, according to the White House. 

“The two leaders committed to continue to work together to protect the health and well-being of all Arkansans,” the White House’s readout of the call said. 

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Republican strategists argue that the division between the party’s governors isn’t a matter of ideological differences, but rather of geography.

“States like California and New York are very similar in terms of lifestyle and politics, whereas states like Florida and Arkansas have drastically different types of urban centers, suburban centers,” said one Republican operative. “It’s just a completely different map, and the ruralness of it too is a big role.” 

Republicans have also deflected blame toward Biden’s response to the crisis. 

“They’re no longer listening to Washington because they feel that Biden doesn’t have a plan at all other than browbeating DeSantis and Abbott about what they’re doing,” Florida-based Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. 

Biden publicly called out those two governors last week for their moves to block mask mandates at the local level in their states. 

“Some state officials are passing laws or signing orders that forbid people from doing the right thing,” Biden said. “As of now, seven states not only banned mask mandates, but also banned them in their school districts, even for young children who cannot get vaccinated.”

DeSantis hit back at Biden last week, saying, “Why don’t you do your job?” 

“Joe Biden suggests that if you don’t do lockdown policies, then you should ‘get out of the way.’ But let me tell you this: If you’re coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I’m standing in your way. I’m not going to let you get away with it,” the Florida governor said. 

DeSantis is currently locked in a battle with a number of school districts in the state that are defying the governor’s executive order on banning mask mandates. DeSantis’s office announced Monday that Florida’s Board of Education could move to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members if they go against the governor’s order. 

In Texas, Abbott has also said that schools cannot enact mask mandates despite having enacted a statewide one as governor last year. 

“I think we’ve gotten to the point where you’ve seen the White House official taxpayer-funded staff taking swipes at a governor from the opposite party honestly for the sake of the fact that they see him as a threat for ’24,” the GOP operative said. 

Unlike Ivey and Hutchinson, DeSantis and Abbott are both considered potential 2024 GOP presidential contenders, making their coronavirus responses that much more important to the conservative base. 

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“The real division is who has presidential aspirations and who doesn’t,” said veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye.

“Of those who have the presidential aspirations, they are trying to do anything they can to show that they’re fighting for their base and that they can’t be outflanked on the right.” 

And GOP strategists argue that Biden’s public sparring with DeSantis and Abbott has the ability to elevate them with the conservative base and in terms of national name recognition. 

“The power that the bully pulpit of the president has is massive,” Heye said. “And so by the president engaging with a particular governor, whether he calls them out by name or does so with just a wink and a nod, that elevates that governor.” 

DeSantis in particular has been viewed as an heir apparent to former President TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE as leader of the Republican Party. Under DeSantis’s leadership during the pandemic, Florida has become the center of the GOP political universe due to his largely hands-off approach when it comes to shutdowns, mask mandates and the state’s economic performance. 

While his popularity among conservatives has continued to soar, he has become a target of Democrats across the country who argue that DeSantis’s approach to COVID-19 is too dangerous in the age of the delta variant.  

“If the last year has taught us anything it’s that making predictions on what’s going to backfire on governors is a horrible idea,” said the GOP operative.