McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ky.) has been one of the more consistent GOP voices on COVID-19 precautions and the importance of getting vaccinated.

Amid a growing partisan divide over COVID-19 vaccination, McConnell has been vocal about the need for everyone in the country to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, regardless of political party. 

He has consistently worn masks throughout the pandemic and notably declined to go to the White House in the final months of the Trump administration because he disagreed with their lack of COVID-19 protocols.

ADVERTISEMENT

But experts and political strategists say McConnell's message has been muddied by a reluctance to confront his Republican colleagues who are actively stoking fears and mistrust over the vaccine and discouraging people from getting it.

“He could have provided a leadership role, he could have pulled his caucus into the back room and said, ‘You guys need to get on board here.’ He did not do that," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“He had the opportunity to lead his party. And had he done so, I think that we would have a much different outcome than we're seeing today in communities that have heard these negative messages."

McConnell has spoken frequently in his home state of Kentucky and in Washington, telling people the only way to stop further hospitalizations and deaths is to take the widely available vaccine. 

McConnell has said that as a polio survivor, he is in a particularly unique position to advocate for the effectiveness of vaccines. 

“This is something I think I'm a good example of, something I know the answer to,” McConnell said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Without addressing any other Republican by name, McConnell this week said he doesn't understand why some people refuse the vaccine. He was so grateful to get the polio vaccine, he said, “it never occurred to me” there would be so much resistance to a lifesaving shot. 

“If there is anybody out there willing to listen: Get vaccinated,” McConnell said at his weekly press conference Tuesday.

“These shots need to get in everybody's arms as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don't yearn for — that we went through last year,” he said, urging Americans "to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.” 

Other Republicans have been far less consistent in sending a pro-vaccine message.

In the House, some GOP lawmakers have blasted the administration’s effort to push vaccines, which Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) has compared to Nazi Germany.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lauren BoebertLauren BoebertWatchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments Jan. 6 panel seeks records of those involved in 'Stop the Steal' rally Jan. 6 panel to ask for preservation of phone records of GOP lawmakers who participated in Trump rally: report MORE (R-Colo.) tweeted that an “army” led by Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci'Highest priority' is to vaccinate the unvaccinated, Fauci says Sunday shows - Boosters in the spotlight Fauci: Data for Moderna, Johnson & Johnson booster shots 'a few weeks' out MORE, President BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE’s chief medical adviser, would be knocking on doors to “push the experimental COVID vaccine.” 

Others have emphasized that getting a vaccine is a personal choice.

“This is something we deal with in our lives on a daily basis; ever since I’ve been born, there’s sicknesses, there’s flu, there’s different diseases,” Rep. Barry LoudermilkBarry LoudermilkOn The Money — Yellen sounds alarm on national default GOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout House GOP stages mask mandate protest MORE (R-Ga.) told The Hill this week. “I have probably a much higher chance, because of my age and where I live, just the demographics of the South and the way people eat, of having some kind of heart disease as much as I do from getting COVID.”

“But it’s a personal responsibility issue, and these people are willing to take that risk because they think that, ‘Look, there’s a greater chance if I get COVID of just getting through it.’ The majority of people don’t end up in the hospital,” he said.

House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOSHA faces big challenge with Biden vaccine mandate Overnight Health Care — Nicki Minaj stokes uproar over vaccines Republicans ask FDA for details on any White House pressure on boosters MORE (R-La.), the second highest ranking Republican in the House, got his first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine days ago amid concerns about the delta strain.

Appearing with the GOP Doctors Caucus, Scalise on Thursday said he “would encourage people to get the vaccine,” saying the caucus has “expressed confidence in the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Some raised eyebrows at the fact that Scalise was just getting the vaccine in July when it was readily accessible months ago. He said he had antibodies from his previous COVID-19 infection and felt that he might not need it, but decided to do so given the risk of the delta strain.

Health officials and experts recommend that even people who have been previously infected still get vaccinated, because the antibodies from that infection are not as strong or as long-lasting as the ones from a vaccine.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nationally, coronavirus infections are rising while vaccination rates lag. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFDA panel endorses COVID-19 booster shots for older Americans, rejects widespread use Watch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows MORE, the seven-day average of cases increased more than 50 percent from last week, to about 37,700. 

Hospitalizations are up more than 30 percent from last week, and deaths — a lagging indicator — are up 19 percent, Walensky said. The delta variant accounts for 83 percent of all infections in the country, and experts think it is likely an undercount. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the stark political divide among the vaccine hesitant has grown more prominent in recent months. The vaccination gap between counties that voted for former President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE in the 2020 election and those that voted for Biden has nearly doubled in less than two months.  

Conservative areas of the country have been particularly hard-hit by the delta strain; White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff ZientsJeff ZientsWhite House debates vaccines for air travel US to buy hundreds of millions more vaccine doses for the world: report Employers scramble to secure vaccine verification systems MORE on Thursday said Texas, Missouri and Florida alone accounted for more than 40 percent of all new cases this week.

But some political strategists said there are limits to the influence an individual politician has.

Last week, when asked about other Republicans raising doubts about the vaccine, McConnell said, “I can only speak for myself.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Republican strategist and Capitol Hill veteran Doug Heye said he's glad more Republicans are joining McConnell in preaching the safety and efficacy of the vaccines but that it should not have taken this long.  

"One of the frustrating things to watch is, when you have the Republican leader being so consistently responsible on this, that we've had to go through more than a year now [of] him being a lone voice in the wilderness sometimes," Heye said. 

But Heye said he was skeptical that McConnell calling out his fellow Republicans would move the needle much on convincing the vaccine holdouts.

“He can be his brother's keeper, but that doesn't mean that he can necessarily affect how a senator in his own state or a Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDomestic extremists return to the Capitol GOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes Internal poll shows Barnes with 29-point lead in Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary MORE reacts to things, much less than what the conservative ecosphere outside of him says or does,” Heye said, referring to the GOP senator from Wisconsin.

Scott Jennings, a former McConnell campaign adviser, said politicians have a responsibility to tell the truth about the vaccine but that there are limits to what even someone like McConnell can do.

“I think people do listen to and respect Mitch McConnell, and again I think some of these Republicans are coming around in recent days, which is a good thing,” Jennings said. “But I think the same thing about [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE. I don't think he can control the speech of every Democrat, and I don't think Mitch McConnell can control the speech of every Republican.”