WASHINGTON — As the delta variant of the coronavirus courses through the American bloodstream, the Republican Party can't make up its mind about vaccines.
Former President Donald Trump has said that people should get inoculated but also that he wants to respect their right to choose not to. For the most part, he's been as reluctant to urge vaccinations as his political base has been resistant — perhaps leery of crossing his own voters, even though deaths are higher in traditionally conservative regions.
While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urged Americans to get dosed this week and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., released a photo of his injection, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation that played down the risk of the virus, which has killed more than 600,000 people in the U.S.
Fox News prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, both major influencers within Republican circles, have split over the issue. Carlson is fueling vaccine skepticism; Hannity, who once played down the risk of the virus, is urging Americans to take the jab. Laura Ingraham, another high-profile Fox host, has given voice to skeptics and accused Democrats of "coercion" in promoting vaccines.
"I can't say it enough: Enough people have died. We don't need any more death," Hannity said on his show Monday. "I believe in the science of vaccination."
It's not clear yet whether the mixed messaging, coming against the backdrop of a surge of infections in the U.S., will have an effect on next year's midterm elections or a possible Trump bid for the presidency in 2024. But some Republicans are befuddled by loud anti-vaccine voices drowning out the credit Trump wants to take for having pushed development of coronavirus countermeasures through Operation Warp Speed.
"I don't understand it," Republican GOP strategist Brad Todd said, adding, "I didn't understand it when [2020 North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate] Cal Cunningham and Kamala Harris tried to cast doubt on Warp Speed."
In September, during the stretch run of the presidential campaign, Harris sounded a note of skepticism about Trump's promotion of then-forthcoming vaccines.
"I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he's talking about," Harris said on CNN. "I will not take his word for it."
But the politics of vaccination have changed, and Democratic strategists see a common thread running through conspiracy theories embraced by the GOP that include misinformation about the vaccines and Trump's lie that the last election was rigged. Democratic voters, the strategists say, are extremely concerned about Republican leaders' selling lies that incite voters to take dangerous action — or, in the case of the vaccines — no action.
"It's definitely a turnout issue on our side," said Julia Kennedy, a Democratic strategist who worked on President Joe Biden's campaign. "It is definitely still at the top of people's minds, because they are connecting Republican candidates with the Capitol insurrection, conspiracy theories over the vaccine and the big lie."
For Republicans, the calculus is more complex, and the party's putative leader, Trump, has tried to have it both ways. He is consistent in his message that he is responsible for the development of the vaccines and that they have his seal of approval for Americans who want to get inoculated. But he has also provided rhetorical comfort for people who opt against vaccination, an ambiguity that began with his decision to receive his vaccination privately and not to use the occasion to persuade others.
"I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly," he told Fox Business in March. "But again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that also. But it is a great vaccine. It is a safe vaccine, and it is something that works."
Despite the divide in the party, many Republicans see little electoral danger for the midterms.
Elijah Haahr, a former Missouri House speaker, said there's an asymmetry to the voting public. For those who have chosen not to get vaccinated, he said, "that will be their No. 1 issue, and they will vote against the party that wants to force them to vaccinate." On the other side of the spectrum, he said, people who have been vaccinated are more likely to put other issues front and center by the time they go to the polls next year.
But Kennedy said Democrats will still be fired up, because skepticism about vaccines is part of what her party's voters see as a pattern of harmful disinformation and misinformation coming from GOP officials and their allies in conservative media.
"Our people are tying it to all of these other things," Kennedy said. "As happy as people are that we got Trump out of office, the threat is so real and still in people's face."
For all voters, the urgency may have everything to do with where the fight against Covid-19 stands in the fall of 2022.
"It depends on the progress of the pandemic between now and the midterm," said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist.
What Steel said he can't understand — along with millions of Americans in both parties — is why some of Trump's top supporters are casting doubt on vaccines and why Trump himself hasn't been even more present in encouraging people to get vaccinated.
"These are Trump vaccines," Steel said. "He should be standing on the roof of Trump Tower shouting at people to take vaccines."