Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R) is under pressure to balance his appeal to pro-vaccine voters and vaccine skeptics as concerns over the delta variant grow with schools reopening.
Youngkin has strongly encouraged the commonwealth’s voters to get vaccinated, but unlike Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, he has stopped short of calling for mandates.
"I believe that we have to just respect people's ability to express their liberty to say, no, I'm not going to get this vaccine for whatever reason,” Youngkin told Virginia-based conservative radio host John Fredericks on Wednesday.
Complicating matters for Youngkin is the fact that the Food and Drug Administration formally approved the Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccine, which is expected to give the green light to skeptical businesses and local governments to require vaccinations.
“By the time people start voting, most likely the Moderna vaccine will get the same approval, then [Johnson and Johnson], and then it’s clear which direction this train is charging. In the direction of vaccines and masking and doing what the health professionals say we have to do of this virus,” said said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The trend already has started in Virginia, with Hampton Roads hospital systems and University of Virginia Health System becoming the latest in the commonwealth on Wednesday to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all employees.
The tightrope Youngkin is walking mirrors that of other Republicans, including former President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE who faced boos last weekend in Alabama for telling his supporters to “take the vaccines.”
Youngkin released an ad last week titled “Keep Virginia Open,” urging voters to get vaccinated but adding that he “respects” individuals making their own decision on the matter.
“He’s doing the extra effort in terms of encouraging folks to get the vaccine with an ad,” said a Youngkin campaign spokesperson.
Democrats in Virginia, on the other hand, have plowed ahead in calling for vaccine mandates. This week McAuliffe urged Virginia colleges and universities to require students and staff to receive vaccinations and for employers in the state to mandate their employees get the jab.
“Only by getting vaccinated and standing strong together will we defeat this virus once and for all, and keep our commonwealth and our economy on track,” McAuliffe wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday.
But Youngkin and his Republican allies argue McAuliffe’s stance on the vaccine threatens individual liberties and the economy.
“It’s one extreme end where we’re mandating masks, we’re mandating vaccines, shutting down everything again,” said a Youngkin spokesperson. “Glenn is a contrast to that, where he’s obviously encouraging folks to get the vaccine but understands that you can preserve lives and livelihoods at the same time.”
This week Youngkin’s campaign touted comments made by McAuliffe earlier this month at the HIMSS conference in Las Vegas, in which he wanted to “make life difficult” for the unvaccinated in an effort to convince them to get the jab.
"We have 93 million Americans today that are not vaccinated, and we need to do everything that we possibly can," McAuliffe said. "And I tell my private businesses all the time, I hope you mandate vaccines for people coming in. Until we make it hard for people to get on planes or go to movie theaters, people just aren't going to do it."
"We can’t force them, we’re not going door to door, but you make life difficult," he said. "If you’re going to come to the HIMSS conference, you got to be vaccinated."
But political watchers say McAuliffe’s comments likely will not cost him with the majority of Virginia voters, noting that the voter-rich parts of the commonwealth tend to lean Democratic.
“McAuliffe has now taken the issue and made it front and center in the campaign,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “This is not going to be popular in any of the rural counties, but McAuliffe believes that this is going to be popular in the suburbs, and if he’s correct, he’s going to have a big advantage. If he’s not, it gives Youngkin the opportunity to gain some defections.”
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released on Thursday found that 50 percent of U.S. workers said they were in favor of coronavirus vaccines being required in the workplace, while 26 percent said they opposed the requirements. Another 23 percent said they neither favored or opposed the mandates. Among remote workers, 59 percent said they are in favor of vaccine mandates in their workplaces, while 47 percent of respondents currently working in their workplaces said the same.
In Virginia, a recent polling from the left-leaning Change Research found that 57 percent of voters said they were in favor of requiring all students to be vaccinated once the FDA approves the vaccines for children under the age of 12. Meanwhile, 64 percent said they were in favor of permitting businesses to mandate vaccines for their employees if they work together indoors.
Political watchers on both sides of the aisle say that McAuliffe holds the upper hand on the issue because there are simply more moderate- to left-leaning voters in the commonwealth.
“They have more voters than we do,” said Fredericks, who opposes the mandates. “They want the government to tell you what to do and right now, they’re in the majority otherwise, McAuliffe wouldn’t have made this the seed of his campaign.”
The most recent vaccine rhetoric in the race comes as McAuliffe leads Youngkin in the polls.
A Christopher Newport University poll released on Thursday showed McAuliffe with 50 percent support from likely registered voters in Virginia, while Youngkin trailed at 41 percent support. Meanwhile, a Roanoke College poll released last week showed McAuliffe with an 8-point lead over Youngkin, while a Virginia Commonwealth University poll released last week showed McAuliffe with a more narrow 3-point lead.
Fredericks said the latest polling in the wake of McAuliffe’s calls for vaccine mandates should serve as a “wakeup call” for Youngkin.
“They have got to take this very seriously and they better get a message that resonates,” Fredericks said. “[McAuliffe] is going to run as the lockdown-mandate governor and he’s at 50 percent.”