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GOP mask defiance is all about the 2022 ballot box

Analysis: Republicans are betting that voters will blame Democrats for any ongoing suggestion that they protect themselves and others from the coronavirus.

WASHINGTON — Republicans are making a mockery of masks.

Last week, dozens of them marched across the second floor of the Capitol to the mask-ambivalent Senate in a demonstration against the mandate Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has imposed on the House.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., told colleagues that the mandate ate his homework.

"Due to the draconian measures instituted on masks and metal detectors," he told his colleagues after failing to appear for an unrelated roll call, "I missed a vote out of frustration."

And Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., took to the floor Thursday to rail against the inconvenience of Pelosi's mandate and new federal guidance on wearing masks indoors.

"The Democrats are using fear and mandates to continue the crisis mode. But the real crisis has yet to hit: depression, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, supply chain issues, halted production, economic collapse, and worse, the damage to our children's hearts and minds from being out of their school and activities," she said, noting that Pelosi had her hair done at a salon during last year's national shutdown. "The rules only apply to we, the people. They never apply to those who are in power."

At the same time, the U.S. has crossed the threshold of 35 million Covid cases, and more than 616,000 people have died from the disease, according to NBC's figures, up from 400,000 in mid-January. In other words, even as millions of Americans have got vaccinated, the pandemic is still spreading and killing.

It's hard to square Miller's allegation with the actual House mask mandate, which only affects the powerful — including Miller and Pelosi — or the fact that former President Donald Trump sometimes pushed Americans to wear masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not attempted to impose a federal mask mandate but did change its advice to encourage vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in certain situations, guidance that informed Pelosi's decision to make elected officials cover their faces in the House.

Still, Miller's charge is a useful distillation of the way in which Republican officials are communicating with voters during the recent resurgence, and it foreshadows a campaign season in which the GOP runs on freedom from the disease while modeling behavior that promotes its spread.

During a speech in Utah last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, ridiculed the administration's new guidance.

"Did you not get the CDC’s memo?” said DeSantis, whose state has seen a massive surge in Covid cases. “I don’t see you guys complying.”

Two days later, Florida reported its highest number of new infections — more than 21,000 — since the pandemic began.

Republicans are betting that voters will blame Democrats for any ongoing suggestion that they protect themselves and others from the disease by wearing a mask or getting a vaccine. The Biden administration is clearly worried about a potential backlash from voters weary of wearing masks.

"It is not a welcomed piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people's lives who have already been vaccinated," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters. "This new data weighs heavily on me, this new guidance weighed heavily on me and I just wanted to convey that this was not a decision that was taken lightly."

But Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told NBC News he's not concerned about the politics. He thinks Democrats will be rewarded for their handling of Covid.

"Putting the lives and livelihoods of the American people first is not only good politics, but most importantly, it's the right thing to do," he said by text message. "While Republicans spread anti-mask misinformation, perform childish anti-mask antics and make it more difficult to beat this pandemic, President Biden and Democrats continue to focus on getting our country back on track."

Republicans are not uniformly anti-mask. But in an echo of their split on vaccines, the loudest voices are those of GOP lawmakers who think their freedom is abrogated when they're told that masks save lives. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is spending campaign funds to encourage constituents to get vaccinated, has been more circumspect about indoor mask use than the shots.

"This particular environment here on Capitol Hill is extremely well-vaccinated, and we just got the report from CDC and I think we'll all be thinking about the way forward," he told reporters last week. "But it's pretty clear that if you're vaccinated ... your chances of having the disease are pretty small and almost everybody in the Capitol complex is vaccinated. So, this environment right here is — is pretty safe. But we'll have to see what the reaction is to their announcement."

The House Republicans are more reflective of a base that remains opposed to mask-wearing, even in areas where Covid is on the rise. A recent Hill-Harris poll showed that 93 percent of Democrats support mask mandates in high-infection places while Republicans are split 59 percent to 41 percent.

It's the 41-percent tail that appears to be wagging the 59-percent dog right now. That certainly makes some political sense in the House, where the vast majority of Republicans — like the vast majority of Democrats — hail from politically safe districts. They have more to fear, and to gain, from constituents who are fired up against mask use.

All of that helps explain why Republicans are trying to turn federal guidance like that issued under Trump — and the House mask mandate — into another issue that resonates with their base: the idea that the Democratic-run government is trying to control their lives.

"Americans are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves," Miller said on the floor. "The Democrats in this House, and the rest of the federal government, do not know better than you, and they never have. Since when did the federal government become your doctor?"

Of course, few family doctors and even fewer House Republicans are epidemiologists. But it's easy to find epidemiologists who think masks help slow the spread of Covid.