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The GOP’s midterm playbook: Flip the script on Covid

Republicans are looking to harness a growing sense of broader pandemic fatigue as polling suggests independents are souring on government institutions, mandates and experts.
Image: People pass a Covid-19 testing van along a Manhattan street on Jan. 21, 2022 in New York.
People pass a Covid-19 testing van along a Manhattan street Jan. 21 in New York.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In Pennsylvania, a Republican Senate candidate bashes the federal government’s Covid response in TV ads. In Ohio, another promotes ending vaccination mandates. In Florida, the Republican governor criticizes the “flip flops” of the government’s top infectious disease specialist during the pandemic.

Like never before, Republicans are campaigning on the coronavirus, looking to harness the anger of the conservative base and a growing sense of broader voter fatigue with masks and hybrid schooling. It’s a strategy backed up in polls and focus groups.

“The tide is shifting. ... Republicans see an opportunity, unfortunately,” said Aliza Astrow, a political analyst with Third Way, a think tank aligned with Democrats whose focus group findings have suggested that swing voters who helped elect Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in November did so in part to punish the state’s Democratic leaders who enforced school lockdowns and other Covid measures. 

Democrats, in contrast, aren’t talking much about Covid in their paid advertisements or campaign speeches. It’s in sharp contrast to 2020, when President Donald Trump’s erratic handling of the pandemic played a crucial role in his loss to President Joe Biden, whose own poll numbers on his management of Covid are collapsing. 

The GOP’s Covid playbook has three parts. Republicans see the issue as energizing in primary contests while also providing a general election launching pad to reach independent voters, who polls show are souring on government institutions, mandates and experts. And it enables the GOP to criticize Biden for not ending the pandemic — even as Republicans fight mask requirements and after they blocked one of his vaccination mandates. Republicans are also less likely than Democrats and independents to be vaccinated, a frustration for Biden backers who feel the president is being punished for the GOP’s intransigence.

While Democrats’ messaging has focused on safety and shared responsibility, Republicans are trying to shift the discussion to elemental concepts of freedom and the economy, gearing the messages to businesses that want to stay open and workers who want to stay employed. 

Another top target: parents, particularly the suburban moms whose support Trump hemorrhaged and whom Republicans see as persuadable by stoking fears of further school closures.

Although many of the Democratic governors and state officials who were praised for the strict public health measures early in the pandemic largely eschewed mask requirements and resisted school closures as the omicron variant surged — Biden called for schools to stay open amid the wave — some schools were still forced to close.

“The ever-present undercurrent is the economy,” Republican strategist Todd Harris said. “But if you really want a suburban mom’s head to explode, talk about keeping schools closed.” 

All are themes, to varying degrees, in the paid political ads run by Republicans in the Alabama Senate and gubernatorial primaries, Nebraska’s governor’s race and the Ohio and Pennsylvania Senate primaries.

In particular, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Pennsylvania Senate candidate, has made Covid a central theme of his campaign, running two ads that criticize the federal government’s response. It’s an indication of Oz’s need to distinguish himself and sell his candidacy to the base in a multicandidate primary, and it’s a way for him to recast his praise for China’s strict lockdowns early in the pandemic and his questioning of Trump when he wanted to reopen the country early, against the advice of government health experts.

One Republican model for running on Covid was established early in the pandemic by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is looking to ride the strategy to a second term. Calling it “the Free State of Florida,” DeSantis reopened his state early, was among the first to reopen the doors of public schools in 2020, banned mask mandates and outlawed vaccination passports. He became a darling of conservatives after months of doom-and-gloom predictions about the state failed to materialize, and then, when the situation became grim last summer during the surge of the delta variant, his standing held among them because he refused to change course.

DeSantis’ approach de-emphasizes vaccines, favors post-infection therapies and demands that the Biden administration supply the state with monoclonal antibodies that even the manufacturers say don’t work against omicron, now the predominant variant  in the state. Nor will DeSantis say whether he’s had a vaccine booster shot, putting him at loggerheads with Trump, who has inconsistently tried to tout the one major Covid policy of his administration, Operation Warp Speed, which helped develop the vaccines and therapies.

As he runs for re-election this year and eyes a possible 2024 White House bid, DeSantis has made Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, a main target of his campaign. 

Fauci is an inviting target, according to an NBC News poll released this month, which suggests that since the start of the pandemic, trust in him has declined by a net 51 percentage points today.

The poll also suggests that 65 percent of voters said kids’ falling behind in school is a greater concern than the spread of Covid, which only 30 percent ranked higher.

Biden’s approval ratings on handling Covid, once a strength, are now underwater, with 43 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving, according to the Monmouth University poll.

The length of the pandemic and the massive omicron and delta waves have also changed the electorate compared to the pre-vaccine pandemic: More people have been exposed to Covid, and millions more have been vaccinated. That’s driving overall support for preventive measures down, and Republicans are betting it will gin up more than just their base.

“My theory is that if Covid swept through your house and no one died, you’re done with all of this,” said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster who works with numerous Senate candidates.

The sentiment appears to be playing out in early voter surveys. At least 70 percent in the Monmouth poll agreed with the statement that “it’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” 

That echoes results in a poll released Friday by Echelon Insights, which typically surveys for Republicans, which found that 55 percent of voters said it was time to accept the coronavirus as endemic, compared to 37 percent who said it still needed to be treated as an emergency requiring “masking and other restrictions.” 

In all three polls, Republicans and independents were often more aligned in their wish to move on compared to Democrats, who consistently are more vaccinated and yet more worried about the virus. 

Mandatory masking — especially in schools — still has majority support in many polls, but the support is slipping as the effectiveness of cloth masks and the idea of mandatory masking for students come into question. 

Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, argued that Republicans like DeSantis run the risk of alienating voters in the middle, “which is where Joe Biden won.”

“There are ways to communicate this and put Republicans on defense,” Benenson said, echoing Astrow of Third Way, who cautioned that Republicans could still pay the price for “playing footsie with anti-vaxxers and opposing reasonable safety measures.”

In Wisconsin, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, not long after he announced that he would seek re-election, hosted an event focused on offering a “second opinion” on the Covid pandemic, which was widely criticized for featuring falsehoods, including remarks by a doctor who was deplatformed from YouTube and Twitter for spreading misinformation.

Johnson then falsely said in an interview with a conservative activist that there are stories of “athletes dropping dead on the field” from vaccines, which has not happened.

Charles Franklin, who runs the state’s Marquette University Law School poll, said Johnson’s embrace of conspiracy theories is a sign he’s running a base election and that coming out too hard against safety measures is risky because new coronavirus strains could emerge that are more transmissible and deadly.

“The virus gets a vote,” Franklin said.