State Watch

Democrats embrace COVID-19 mandates in governor races

Democratic candidates for governor are embracing calls for new mask and vaccine mandates in a high-stakes bet that voters are more willing to play it safe before returning to normal.

The candidates are taking a page from President Biden’s playbook, according to advisers and observers: They hope to prove that the loudest voices in the room — or on Twitter — are not broadly reflective of public opinion, which they see as squarely on the side of a cautious approach to what still remains a global crisis.

In the process, they have painted themselves in stark contrast to Republican candidates who have eschewed new restrictions or rules, with GOP governors in some cases going so far as to block local jurisdictions from implementing their own mandates.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who faces a recall election next month, has ordered school staff and health care workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the Republican leading recent polls ahead of next month’s recall — radio host Larry Elder — has said he would lift those mandates on his first day in office.

“With delta surging, Gavin Newsom is protecting California, requiring vaccination for health workers and school employees,” says a new advertisement from Newsom’s anti-recall committee. “The top Republican candidate? He peddled deadly conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.”

In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has attempted to tie GOP rival Glenn Youngkin to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) after a radio interview in which Youngkin praised DeSantis’s leadership in reopening the economy.

Florida has among the worst infection rates in the country, and hospitals are filling up. DeSantis has ordered schools not to impose mask mandates on students, at the risk of state funding he says he will withhold.

“Don’t let Glenn Youngkin do to Virginia what Ron DeSantis did to Florida,” a chyron in one of McAuliffe’s recent ads says.

A Youngkin spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

DeSantis is coming under criticism in his own state, too. Rep. Charlie Crist (D), a former Republican governor and now one of several Democrats seeking his new party’s nomination, is running an early ad hitting DeSantis’s laissez-faire approach.

“Florida leads the nation in new COVID cases, jammed hospitals and deaths. And now Ron DeSantis wants to defund schools where they’re asking kids to wear a mask? That’s not what we need. We need common sense and we need to do what’s right,” Crist says in the ad.

The focus on mask and vaccine mandates reflects a careful calculus on the part of Democratic strategists: Protests against mask mandates, they believe, do not reflect the views of a majority of Americans who are fine with mandates that have been shown to save lives while helping keep businesses and schools open.

“Voters know that we have to mitigate COVID to get things back on track. More than anything, they are thankful for the progress that has been made, and want vaccines everywhere,” said Corey Platt, a former political director at the Democratic Governors Association. “There is only a small minority of people who don’t think vaccines are the solution.”

Polls seem to back that up: An Ipsos poll conducted for Axios and released this week found that 64 percent of Americans support state and local governments requiring masks to be worn in public places, and 69 felt the same way about local school districts requiring masks. Just a third backed state laws prohibiting local governments from requiring masks.

More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they were concerned about the new delta variant, which has driven the summer spike in coronavirus cases. The share of Americans who say returning to a pre-coronavirus normal poses a large or moderate risk to their well-being, at 39 percent, is up 11 percentage points over the last month.

Republicans argue that the Democratic position won’t fly in a country eager to return to normal and fully reopen the economy.

“Many Democrat governors find themselves in a vulnerable position because of their ineffective leadership during Covid and an inability to help lift up their constituents during the recovery,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “No matter the issue, Democrats always favor more restrictions, and it’s going to backfire among the wide swath of voters who value a balanced approach and want freedom and choice to make decisions best for their family.”

Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego who studies state government, said Democrats are taking a risk — that Americans are paying close attention to the relative outcomes in states with Democratic governors, like California and Virginia, and those with Republican governors, like Florida, Texas and Southern states bearing the brunt of the delta-led spike.

“These Democratic governors are doubling down on I-told-you-so politics. ‘I was wise and our state may be hurting, but it’s better off than other states.’ Rationally, voters should reward that kind of forethought,” Kousser said. “But voters aren’t rational. They punish governors for everything that goes wrong in their state, no matter what role they had in it. Putting your name in the same sentence of COVID over and over again makes you both own the response, but also own the disaster.”

The coming school year, which is already underway in some states, adds a new layer of consequence: The delta variant is more likely to infect children than some earlier strains, and it has led to crowded pediatric intensive care units in some states.

“Parents are worried about the spread of COVID in children because it’s happening so rapidly with the return to schools,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist based in Maryland, where Democrats and Republicans will battle over an open governor’s office next year.

“Governors and other elected Republican executives who are actively discouraging mask usage and encouraging anti-vaxxers are going to pay the price with these parents when kids get sick or have in-person learning shut down again due to illness.”

Tags California Charlie Crist Coronavirus COVID-19 Florida Gavin Newsom Governor races gubernatorial candidates Joe Biden mask mandates Pandemic Ron DeSantis vaccine mandates Virginia

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