As a new coronavirus wave accelerated by the delta variant spreads across the United States, many Republican governors have taken sweeping action to combat what they see as an even more urgent danger posed by the pandemic: the threat to personal freedom.
In Florida, Ron DeSantis has prevented local governments and school districts from enacting mask mandates and battled in court over compliance. In Texas, Greg Abbott has followed a similar playbook, renewing an order last week to ban vaccine mandates.
And in South Dakota, Kristi Noem, who like DeSantis and Abbott is a potential 2024 candidate for president, has made her blanket opposition to lockdowns and mandates a key selling point. Arriving by horseback and carrying the American flag, she advertised the state’s recent Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew half a million people, as a beacon of liberty.
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Noem brushed aside criticism from Democrats and public health experts about the gathering, which was followed by a local COVID spike, saying on Fox News that the left was “accusing us of embracing death when we’re just allowing people to make personal choices.”
The actions of Republican governors, some of the leading stewards of the country’s response to the virus, reveal how the politics of the party’s base have hardened when it comes to curbing COVID. As some Republican-led states, including Florida, confront their most serious outbreaks yet, even rising death totals are being treated as less politically damaging than imposing coronavirus mandates of almost any stripe.
“Freedom is good policy and good politics,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, an ally of Abbott’s who has introduced federal legislation to end mask decrees and to forbid federal vaccine passports, said in an interview.
DeSantis has become a symbolic face of the battle, as President Joe Biden has urged Republican governors opposed to mandates to at least “get out of the way.” This week, DeSantis’ education commissioner withheld funds from two school districts that made masks mandatory.
Most top Republicans, including every Republican governor, have been vaccinated and have encouraged others to do so. But most have also stopped short of supporting inoculation requirements and have opposed masking requirements.
In many ways, Republican leaders are simply following Republican voters.
Skepticism about masks, vaccines and the rules governing them is increasingly intertwined with the cultural issues that dominate the modern Republican Party. The fear over losing “medical freedom” has become part of the broader worry that “cancel culture” is coming for conservatives’ way of life.
And while opposing pandemic edicts is a limited-government stance, the forceful approach of governors is at odds with the long-held principle of local control, making it the latest Republican Party orthodoxy to be cast aside since the beginning of the Trump era, along with free trade and limited spending.
The intensifying conservative mistrust of the media and opposition to the directives of elite institutions and experts — Dr. Anthony Fauci is now so reviled by some that DeSantis sold merchandise saying “Don’t Fauci My Florida” — have cleaved the country into two factions guided by alternative sets of beliefs.
One outlier among Republican governors is Larry Hogan, a moderate who leads Democratic-dominated Maryland. He recently required that hospital and nursing home employees be vaccinated.
“Frankly, it’s confusing to me as to why some of my colleagues are mandating why you can’t wear masks, or mandating that businesses can’t make their own decisions about vaccines, or mandating that school systems can’t make decisions for themselves,” Hogan said in an interview. “And then they’re talking about freedom? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The pandemic, public health officials say, is now largely one of the unvaccinated, and the virus is raging particularly in conservative states with far lower inoculation rates and more relaxed attitudes toward group gatherings. Of the 10 states with the most cases per capita in recent days, nine voted Republican in last year’s presidential race and nine are led by Republican governors, according to The New York Times coronavirus database.
Republican leaders’ posture, particularly on keeping schools from requiring masks, does not appear popular across the wider electorate. In Florida, a Quinnipiac poll released last week found that 60% of residents supported compulsory masks in schools.
But among Republicans, that figure was inverted: 72% of DeSantis’ party said they opposed universal masking requirements in schools. The poll showed that a plurality of Republicans in the state also opposed a mask requirement for health care workers, a measure that is popular among independents.
“Many Republicans are out on an island by themselves,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster. “It may be a safe political place for some primary electorates at the moment. But ultimately you have to win a general election.”
Governors nationwide almost uniformly reject the idea that political considerations have shaped their COVID policies.
“Politics have played no role,” said Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Noem.
The offices of DeSantis, Abbott, Noem and other Republican governors did not make them available for comment. But advisers to multiple Republican governors said the widespread distribution of vaccines had changed the governing calculus when it came to masks and shutdowns. Both DeSantis and Abbott have focused on opening antibody treatment sites for those who contract the virus.
As Florida became the first state to reach a new peak in deaths since vaccines became freely available, DeSantis has remained steadfast in keeping schools from requiring masks without a parental opt-out.
“We say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” DeSantis said at a conservative conference in July.
These choices by governors carry a range of risks.
One Republican strategist privately lamented, only half-jokingly, that the party was going to kill off part of its own base with its vaccine hesitancy. Former President Donald Trump recently told donors at a New York Republican Party fundraiser that he hoped his supporters would get vaccinated because “we need our people,” according to two attendees.
Even Trump is not immune from blowback, however. He received a rare rebuke from his base at an August rally in Alabama after he urged people to get vaccinated.
“Take the vaccines,” he said. “I did it. It’s good.”
Some in the crowd began to jeer. Trump appeared to soften his stance.
“That’s OK; that’s all right,” he said. “You got your freedoms, but I happened to take the vaccine.”
Trump’s political operation has clearly assessed where his base stands. “FREEDOM PASSPORTS > VACCINE PASSPORTS,” read one recent fundraising text, selling $45 American flag shirts that declare, “This is my freedom passport.”
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, saw his party’s pushback firsthand on a 16-stop tour to promote vaccination.
Hutchinson signed a law this spring banning mask mandates, but with cases rising again in August, he said he regretted it. In Siloam Springs, he was pelted with questions from frustrated constituents, including one woman who told him that she had been “praying that God himself will step in so that Christians are not forced by their employers and a mandate to get the vaccine.”
“Yet even if God does not, I will not bow,” she said to raucous cheers.
Then there is Noem, who in July accused other Republican governors of “pretending they didn’t shut down their states, that they didn’t close their regions, that they didn’t mandate masks.” The remarks were widely interpreted to be aimed at potential 2024 rivals.
Cruz, who ran for president in 2016 and could again in 2024, predicted a reckoning for politicians, including Republicans, who had embraced pandemic edicts.
“There’s a range of politicians in terms of how long they shut things down,” he said. “In my view, the shorter the better. But that will certainly be a legitimate topic for discussion and debate.”
Ayres, the Republican pollster, said that governors trying to control the virus policies of schools, employers and local officials were breaking with years of tradition on free enterprise and local control.
“Liberty has never meant the freedom to threaten the health” of others, Ayres said. “That is a perversion of the definition of liberty and freedom.”
Some governors who imposed mandates and lockdowns last year have even been targeted by state legislators who want to trim their powers.
In Ohio, the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Mike DeWine, a fellow Republican, of legislation that reined in his administration’s emergency powers to manage the pandemic. After requiring masks to be worn last year in schools, he has not renewed the order this fall.
DeWine, who drew national attention for his fast and forceful response to COVID in early 2020, now faces a 2022 primary challenge from Jim Renacci, a former congressman. Renacci said the governor’s handling of the virus was “a big part” of his bid.
He said DeWine had now “gone quiet” on mandates because “he realizes what he did the first time did not make Republicans happy.”
A spokesperson for DeWine said the need for mandates had changed since vaccines became freely available.
The most severe COVID outbreaks have been most concentrated in the South, and the Republican governors of Alabama and Mississippi have largely embraced the no-mandate ethos even as cases have climbed to new heights.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi renewed an emergency declaration in mid-August but set clear boundaries.
“There will be no lockdowns and there will be no statewide mandates,” he said.
The same week, two field hospitals were installed in the parking lots of Mississippi medical centers.