With more than 70% of adult Americans now fully vaccinated, Republicans are advocating for a slender minority of Americans as they champion the rights of the unvaccinated. It’s a group dominated by voters within their base, which is why objections to federal mandates have become a key talking point for several potential 2024 hopefuls as they make the case that government overreach under Biden knows no bounds and must be stopped.
But it’s a messaging strategy that’s gone beyond the Covid-19 culture wars, as Republicans warn that the rules will lead to lost jobs, economic disruptions and further labor shortages. The GOP’s performance in Virginia and New Jersey last week, for example, raised the question of whether opposition to mandates — when framed around that overreach argument — could have wider appeal as the party tries to win back the House and Senate next year.
The lack of mass firings thus far due to vaccine requirements has not stopped Republicans from conjuring up potential doomsday scenarios for when the federal mandates go into effect.
Echoing the party’s rhetoric against mask mandates, some GOP lawmakers have said vaccine requirements trample on individual liberties. But they are also appealing to the many voters who remain anxious about the economic recovery as they warn of potential staffing disruptions and more limited availability of health care services, in addition to the ripple effect that could be caused by workers losing their jobs.
“Let’s be clear — because it’s easy to play this as a two-dimensional morality play. I’m pro vaccine,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference last weekend, noting that he and his family have been vaccinated. “But I also believe in individual freedom and responsibility. I think it should be your choice what health care you get. You ought to be able to decide with your doctor.”
“We’ve seen a lot of Democrats who are willing to be petty tyrants,” he said, arguing that was a factor in Republican gains on election night last week. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris seem to want to double down on that, which is going to result in — next year — a Republican House and a Republican Senate.”
The administration’s mandates apply to businesses that have 100 employees or more, certain health care workers and federal contractors. The rule issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration governing large employers would allow workers to submit to weekly testing instead of getting the vaccine. But a second rule that will affect about 17 million workers at health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding will require employees to be vaccinated with no test-out option. The two rules, slated to go into effect January 4, cover about 100 million Americans.
In interviews with a half-dozen strategists on both sides of the aisle this week, most said they believed the GOP revolt against the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements would largely be an issue that animates the GOP base, particularly during the primaries early next year, unless the country was to see a major exodus of health care workers from their jobs early next year.
But Republicans are already weaponizing the issue against a number of Democratic governors facing competitive races next year.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who won her office in a Republican-dominated state by courting GOP support in 2018, recently sought to create distance from the Biden administration’s vaccine rules in a statement where she said she appreciated the administration’s “intention to keep people safe,” but said she does not believe the directive “is the correct, or most effective, solution for Kansas.”
“States have been leading the fight against COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic,” Kelly said. “It is too late to impose a federal standard now that we have already developed systems and strategies that are tailored for our specific needs.”
Kansas’ Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is challenging Kelly and described her words as “half-hearted” and “empty,” has filed three lawsuits seeking to stop the Biden administration’s mandates. After filing the third this week, he tweeted that the vaccine rule applying to most health care workers will threaten “the continued operations of numerous rural hospitals and nursing homes in Kansas that already struggle to find enough staff to operate.”
Jesse Hunt, communications director for the Republican Governors Association, said his party will keep the pressure on not only Kelly in Kansas, but also vulnerable Democratic governors in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Nevada — forcing them to answer for “what’s best for the local economy and for states’ rights.”
“What we saw in Virginia and in New Jersey was that people’s concerns about affordability and the workforce returning to where it was pre-pandemic, and anything that contributes to these employers’ ability to earn a living, is going to backfire on these Democratic governors,” Hunt said. “Right now, economic concerns reign supreme in voters’ minds.”
But Democratic strategist Bill Burton argued that Republicans are picking a losing side at a time when most Americans are looking for solutions that will end the pandemic and allow them to return to their normal lives.
“Voters aren’t going to judge candidates based on the vaccine mandates; they are going to judge based on whether Covid is getting better,” said Burton, the former deputy press secretary for President Barack Obama. “Republicans seem at peace with using the health of their supporters as collateral damage for their political gain, but they are wrong on the politics and they are dangerously cynical on the health impacts.”
Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant, cautioned that the GOP risks overreaching in their efforts to block the administration’s mandates. That messaging could, for example, unnerve suburban parents who “want to support politicians who will work toward a solution to the problem,” he said.
“The anti-science, knuckle-dragging — if not anti-vax, certainly vaccine-skeptic — wing of the Republican Party that’s on the rise these days, that’s not how you win a general election,” Russell said. “Biden needs Covid to be in the rearview mirror by the height of the election season next year in the midterms, so we’ve got to do everything we can — within the bounds of reason — to lower Covid cases so that we can fully reopen the economy, fully reopen schools and just be done with this. A vaccine mandate is a tool that he has to accomplish that goal of getting Covid in a rearview mirror.”
GOP legal challenges and legislation undercutting vaccine rules
While Republicans feel they have a strong hand with their economic warnings about federal vaccine mandates, the Biden administration is facing myriad legal challenges to the two sets of rules that had been slated to go into effect on January 4. Republican leaders from more than two dozen states are suing the administration over the OSHA rule for large employers. Last Saturday, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked that rule from going into effect.
On Wednesday, 10 states filed a lawsuit challenging the separate Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rule requiring some 17 million health care workers to get fully vaccinated by the January deadline if they work at health facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding. The states argued that the rule threatens to “exacerbate an alarming shortage of health care workers, particularly in rural communities, that has already reached a boiling point.”
Those arguments are being echoed by GOP lawmakers around the country as they turn to legislation as a cudgel to resist mandates that President Joe Biden says are crucial to ending a pandemic that has claimed more than 750,000 American lives.
One GOP White House aspirant, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is looking to make headlines next week, when he has asked state lawmakers to create protections for workers from the mandates in a special legislative session. He argues that Americans are sick of “being bossed around, restricted and mandated” and he warned during a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference that “if they can violate your freedoms on this issue, they are going to violate your freedoms on other issues.”
The approaching federal deadline has also inspired a raft of legislation from Republican lawmakers in statehouses across the country, including on the question of how broadly a religious exemption to getting the vaccine may be defined.
In Kansas, for example, Republican lawmakers are pushing for a special session to consider legislation aimed at skirting the Biden administration’s rules. One of the bills crafted by Republican Senate President Ty Masterson would bar employers from questioning the sincerity of the religious beliefs of an employee seeking an exemption; another would make sure that employees fired for refusing to get a Covid-19 vaccine are entitled to unemployment benefits.
At least 14 states already have varying prohibitions on vaccine mandates, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while 21 states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate in place.
The Biden administration is urging large employers to press ahead with their plans to comply with the new rules by January, confident that they will withstand court challenges. (It is not yet clear which federal appeals court circuit will handle the cases. Because numerous petitioners are challenging the same rule in multiple circuits, the cases will ultimately end up in one circuit determined randomly through a lottery.)
In a statement earlier this month announcing the January deadline to comply, Biden stressed that he would have preferred to avoid vaccine requirements, but said “too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good.” He also emphasized that as large and small businesses, as well as state and local agencies, have put their own mandates in place in recent months, “there have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements.”
Uncertainty about job losses gives GOP powerful messaging tool
Cruz told reporters last weekend at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference that he was “hearing from doctors and nurses who are being fired by the thousands,” as well as firefighters and police officers who are losing their jobs or in professional limbo because of what he described as “illegal vaccine mandates.” He said he has also been talking to pilots and air traffic controllers who say vaccine requirements have led to flight cancellations, although there have been many other factors at play in the recent flight disruptions, including understaffing woes.
One challenge for Democrats in rebutting such claims is that there is no central repository of information about how many workers have left their jobs as a result of mandates thus far — key data points that could offer clues for what lies ahead in January. Much of the data has been scattered and anecdotal as it is released by companies or individual government agencies who choose to do so.
“The problem is that this is very fragmented, which is usual for the United States, but still makes getting the data hard,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law whose recent research has focused on policy related to vaccine mandates. “It’s place by place and there’s not really a good collection (of data).” She noted that anecdotally, the cities and entities that she’s been tracking “have less resignations and terminations than expected.”
The full effect of the vaccine requirements on the workforce is also still not clear in some of the cities with more restrictive vaccine policies, like Los Angeles and New York, where many requests for medical or religious exemptions are still under review.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who has championed vaccine mandates as a key tool for moving the city beyond the pandemic, reported Wednesday that about 93% of the city’s work force is now vaccinated and that only 2,600 employees are on leave without pay for refusing to comply with the city’s vaccine mandate. That amounts, he said, to less than 1% of all employees — a major decline from about 9,000 employees who went on leave without pay when the policy took effect. The mayor said there are about 12,400 accommodation requests pending for those who requested medical or religious exemptions.
“Some of those will be approved, a good number will not be. Then people will have the choice, of course: get vaccinated, come back to work, and I do expect most people are going to take that choice based on everything we’re seeing here,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “Most people will ultimately make the decision to get vaccinated, and we welcome that.”
While majorities of Americans were supportive of vaccine mandates for teachers, health care workers and certain government workers in polling throughout the summer and early fall, Liz Hamel, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s director of public opinion and survey research, said questions about employer mandates have tended to cleave more narrowly along party lines.
About half of workers said a in mid-October KFF survey that they do not want their employer to require the Covid-19 vaccine and about a quarter said their employer already does. More than a third of unvaccinated workers said they would leave their job if their employer required vaccination or weekly testing, and seven in ten unvaccinated workers said they would quit if they were not given a testing option — though Hamel cautioned that is likely an “overestimate” since many employees likely would not follow through when they face the loss of their livelihoods and incomes. Overall, only 5% of unvaccinated adults said they had left a job because they were required to get vaccinated, which accounted to 1% of all adults nationwide.
When the October respondents were asked whether they supported a federal mandate requiring large employers to make sure their workers get vaccinated — with an option for weekly testing as an alternative — 57% were supportive and 40% were opposed.
“We don’t find any type of mandate that is supported by even close to half of Republicans,” Hamel said. “That all suggests that the messaging of not wanting vaccines to be required is likely to be really effective with a Republican audience.”
Whether it extends beyond that, though, remains to be seen.