More than three years after the onset of the pandemic, Republican presidential hopefuls are taking renewed aim at strategies to combat the coronavirus amid an uptick in cases in recent weeks, even though hardly any Americans view covid as the most important problem facing the country today.
The increase in cases, and the possibility of another surge entering the fall and winter, have led to scattered efforts to reinstate small public health measures, including a 10-day mask mandate in a classroom at a Maryland elementary school experiencing an outbreak and the reappearance of free KN95 masks in New York schools.
But even such measures have been vilified by Republican White House candidates. Last month, former president Donald Trump promised that if reelected, he would use every available authority to cut funding “to any school, college, airline or public transportation system that imposes a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) stressed last Thursday that he and his supporters would “stand against mandates, lockdowns, and school closures.” On the same day, standing behind a podium with a sign that read “MASKING FREEDOM,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) devoted a news conference in Jacksonville to declaring that mask mandates would never return to his state.
In a Gallup poll released in June, concern over catching covid fell to a record low, and a majority of Americans surveyed said for the first time that they believed the pandemic was over. A majority of Republican respondents, 56 percent, reported their lives were completely back to normal, compared to 39 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents. Very few Americans identify coronavirus or other diseases as the most important issue facing the country, according to a Gallup poll released last month. But it has not stopped Republican candidates from relitigating the pandemic response.
Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns, said that if he were advising a candidate, he would tell them to keep talking about the issue since it is an “incredibly safe” topic with “little downside” for the Republican base. “Primaries, elections in general, are about turnout, and turnout is about motivating and exciting voters, giving them a reason to vote,” Bliss said. “And this is a very motivating issue” and “one of the defining culture issues of our time.”
On the campaign trail, the handling of the pandemic has emerged as a way for DeSantis to try to differentiate his policies from those of the Trump administration. Early on in the pandemic, DeSantis had praised Trump for his leadership and efforts to expedite the development of coronavirus vaccines. But he has since become a critic of the vaccines and the pandemic response.
Interrupting a back-and-forth between former vice president Mike Pence and Vivek Ramaswamy during the first Republican presidential debate, DeSantis asked, “Why are we in this mess?” He continued, “Part of it, and a major reason, is how this federal government handled covid-19 by locking down this economy,” and added, “It was a mistake. It should have never happened.”
Trump, in turn, has been attacking DeSantis for months over how the Florida governor handled the pandemic in his state. In January, Trump accused DeSantis of “trying to rewrite history, saying that “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”
Trump and DeSantis have only ratcheted up their attacks related to covid in the months since. This week, DeSantis said during an interview on a conservative talk show that the former Republican president “hurts himself” by bringing up the issue and that Trump is only attacking him “because he believes that I’m a threat to his ambitions.”
Republican campaign veteran Scott Jennings said the mask mandate “is a real flash point for Republicans” which provides DeSantis with an opportunity to distinguish himself as a candidate in the crowded Republican field. “For DeSantis, this issue is how he came to national prominence,” Jennings said. “He was governor of Florida and was constantly in the national press during covid.”
“For Republicans watching DeSantis resist and be the pro-freedom governor and being criticized by the national media, that was rocket fuel for his image among Republican voters. I think he’s always seen this as his main political calling card, which is, ‘I would not bend the knee.’” However, Jennings said he still thinks the primary motivation for Republican voters is not their resistance to a resurgence of protection measures, but “a referendum on and a vindication of Donald Trump politically and legally.”
There could be public health risks with the continued rhetoric. A study published in July by Yale University researchers suggests that differences in vaccination attitudes and the uptake among Republican and Democratic voters “may have been factors in the severity and trajectory of the pandemic” in the United States.
Some Republican candidates, such as former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, have framed the issue in a way that suggests the return of mitigation efforts in school is an attack on parental rights. That issue, namely that parents do not have enough input on the educational experiences of their children in publicly funded spaces like libraries and schools, gained prominence during the pandemic over concerns about masking in schools, vaccine mandates and school closures.
The education issue of parental rights has generally taken on a partisan tone. Along with its rejection of protocols to protect against the covid in schools, the movement has also resisted how public schools and libraries approach issues of race, racism, gender and sexual orientation with children.
Republican strategist Sarah Longwell said covid no longer comes up very often in focus groups she has conducted. “I think the world is in a different place,” she said. “I think Republicans will look for opportunities, the question is whether or not Democrats give them those opportunities, to remind people of examples of overzealous responses to covid.”
Republicans in Congress this year have made several efforts to show that the pandemic is over and that the country should not return to the policies they saw as overreach by the federal government, particularly by the Biden administration. Since retaking the House majority, Republicans have continued holding hearings about the pandemic. And over the summer, they continued to investigate the origins of the virus, holding hearings on school closures, vaccine mandates and other pandemic policies.
Last week, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sought unanimous consent for his bill called the Freedom to Breathe Act to ban federal mask mandates on domestic air travel, public transit and in public schools through the end of 2024. Though it was a largely symbolic move, the request for unanimous consent was foiled after Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) objected.