One Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple state and presidential campaigns said that for Democrats in 2022, invoking Covid might be useful to paint Republicans as anti-vaccine extremists — as McAuliffe did again on Sunday, when he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he still gets asked every day about Covid. Incumbent Democratic governors in states where Covid numbers have fallen may also use it as a means of highlighting a record of competent leadership.
However, he said, “The days of ‘I’m the hero on Covid’ are over. … I think everybody’s just really tired of talking about it, wearing masks, thinking about it. It’s just kind of faded.”
The relegation of Covid to a second-class issue is a conspicuous departure from the summer, when California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, campaigned heavily on his adoption of mask and vaccine mandates — and his main Republican opponent’s opposition to them — to put a recall campaign against him out of reach. The governor’s advisers heralded the aggressive posture on Covid as a model for the midterms, and just last week, Newsom was appealing to Democrats across the nation to recognize that “it’s Covid, stupid.”
Like other Democrats, Newsom predicted that Biden’s slumping public approval rating — a major concern to the party ahead of the midterms — would rebound if the president makes progress on his spending proposals and “as long as the focus reverts immediately back to the reason why he was elected in the first place, and that was to get Covid behind us.”
In fact, the pandemic is not even close to being finished. It’s still killing more than 1,000 people a day in the United States, and vaccines still aren’t available for young children — though they appear likely to be imminently, perhaps as soon as this week. The White House and many Democrats nationally have approached Covid as inseparable from Biden’s broader agenda, believing that stamping out the virus will allow for a fuller reopening and economic gains. If pandemic conditions continue to improve, infrastructure and social spending measures are passed and the economy reacts favorably, Democrats may benefit from an electorate in a better overall mood next year.
“I don’t think we need people to get sick to win an election,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist who has been part of a furious effort to raise money for McAuliffe in recent weeks. Arguing that an improving economy and public health situation could lift the incumbent party next year, he said, “I don’t know how good this is for Democrats, but I can’t imagine that it’s bad.”
If Covid continues to lose salience politically, Republicans have something to lose, too. For more than a year, they have raised money and appealed to base voters by criticizing vaccine mandates and other broadly popular Covid-related restrictions. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota have built entire profiles on their anti-restriction policies ahead of potential presidential runs in 2024. As Covid restrictions are relaxed, the intensity of Republican opposition to them will likely wane, as well.
Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist in Minnesota, where the GOP has excoriated Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for Covid restrictions, said he has been advising Republicans in his state recently to find other issues to talk about. The pandemic, he said, is likely “not going to be a game changer” in 2022.
“I just don’t think you’re going to be able to ride Covid to the governor’s mansion,” he said. “Most people are over it.”
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