With Some Voters ‘Ready to Move On,’ Democrats Search for New Message on Virus

When the coronavirus pandemic first swept Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf closed stores and schools and ordered millions of citizens to stay home. Even four months into the crisis in 2020, all but “life-sustaining” businesses in much of the state were locked down.

Today, the virus is ravaging Pennsylvania again, like much of the country, with hospitalization numbers nearing or exceeding those during the worst months of the pandemic.

Yet Mr. Wolf, a Democrat whose party desperately wants to keep control of his seat in the midterm elections, has no intention of returning to the strict measures of two years ago. There are no plans for mask mandates or more virtual schooling. Pennsylvanians, the governor said, crave a return to normalcy.

“I think everybody’s angry,” said Mr. Wolf, who is ineligible to run again this year. “It’s been two years now. We’re fatigued and ready to move on. I think a lot of the political vectors are reflecting that.”

Around the country, Democratic elected officials who in the pandemic’s early phase shut down cities and states more aggressively than most Republicans did — and saw their popularity soar — are using a different playbook today. Despite the deadly wave fueled by the Omicron variant, Democratic officials are largely skipping mask mandates and are fighting to keep schools open, sometimes in opposition to health care workers and their traditional allies in teachers’ unions.

The shift reflects a potential change in the nature of the threat now that millions of Americans are vaccinated and Omicron appears to be causing less serious disease. But it is also a political pivot. Democrats are keenly aware that Americans — including even some of the party’s loyal liberal voters — have changed their attitudes about the virus and that it could be perilous to let Republicans brand the Democrats the party of lockdowns and mandates.

“You’ll see more Democratic elected officials say that this is our forever now and we can’t live our lives sitting rocking in a corner,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at the polling firm ALG Research, whose work on Virginia’s elections last year indicated that school closures hurt Democrats. “We’ve just got to live with this virus.”

The warning signs for Democrats are manifest. For the first year of the pandemic, Democratic governors in politically divided states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina responded aggressively to the pandemic and won high marks from voters of both parties. The issue was critical to President Biden’s victory in 2020.

Today President Biden’s overall approval, which has fallen into dangerous territory for any party in a midterm election year, is being kept down in part because of disappointment over his performance on coronavirus. Fewer than half of Americans approved of his handling of the pandemic in a CBS News/YouGov survey last week, down from 66 percent who approved in July.

Now that vaccines have been proven effective, Americans have lower tolerance for restrictions, strategists and elected officials said. While schools are largely open in the United States, many families are still dealing with the fallout of two years of classroom disruptions, including loss of learning, mental health problems and millions of parents who were driven out of the work force.

A Look Ahead to the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections

  • In the Senate: Democrats have a razor-thin margin that could be upended with a single loss. Here are 10 races to watch.
  • In the House: Republicans are already poised to capture enough seats to take control, thanks to redistricting and gerrymandering alone.
  • Governors’ Races: Georgia’s race will be at the center of the political universe this year, but there are several important contests across the country.
  • Key Issues: Both parties are preparing for abortion rights and voting rights to be defining topics.

A survey conducted this month by USA Today and Suffolk University found that while majorities of Democratic voters supported policies like vaccination mandates and masking, only 43 percent backed shifting schools to remote learning.

Voters frequently complain of changing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as on-again, off-again mask orders in many places.

Lynn Saragosa said that the changing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the on-again, off-again mask orders in many places were confusing.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

“The rules are confusing,” said Lynn Saragosa, a resident of La Mirada, Calif., just along the border of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. “You go one place and see one thing, but it’s very different someplace else — it becomes very divided and we’re arguing over every single decision.”

Ms. Saragosa, 58, a Democrat who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, said she was unlikely to vote in the midterms, even though some of California’s most competitive congressional races will take place in Orange County.

Ms. Saragosa represents one of Democrats’ biggest fears heading into the midterms, when control of Congress and key governors’ mansions are at stake. The Democrats already begin at a disadvantage, as the party that holds the White House often loses seats during the first midterm elections. If malaise over the pandemic further slackens turnout, it will add to Democrats’ headwinds.

Some Democratic officeholders say they’re ready to defend their actions, noting that by closing businesses and schools they slowed the spread of the coronavirus and saved lives. But Republican candidates have vowed to make the shutdowns central in races from school board to governor to the Senate.

“They will pay the price in the next election,” said Lou Barletta, a Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania who blames Democrats, rather than the virus, for damage to businesses and loss of learning. “Nobody’s going to forget businesses who couldn’t open again or people who lost their jobs. That doesn’t get erased from memory. Not to mention a year’s education was stolen away from our children.”

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in November as a Republican was fueled in part by parents fed up with school closures and mask mandates for their children. Around the country, long-term school closures, which disproportionately occurred in Democratic-run states and cities, has turned off even some progressive voters.

Kim McGair, a lawyer and a normally staunch Democrat in Portland, Ore., said she felt “utterly betrayed” by her party, which she believes abandoned parents and students. “I will not vote for a Democrat who was silent or complicit on school closures, which is the vast majority of them here,” Ms. McGair said. But she also cannot picture herself casting a ballot for a Republican, a situation she describes as being “politically homeless.”

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, imposed some of the nation’s strictest stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic. Angry protesters who waved Tea Party flags at the State Capitol in April 2020, while former President Donald J. Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” were one of the first signs of politicization of the pandemic.

Ms. Whitmer, facing another deadly surge of the virus in her state and a tough re-election fight this fall, was pressed recently about why she hadn’t issued new statewide orders. Her response was defensive, but telling: “Like what?” she said to a Detroit TV interviewer. The existence of vaccines meant that the “blunt tools” used in 2020 to fight the pandemic were not needed, the governor said.

Though broad shutdowns and mandates are off the table in many places — sometimes because of court decisions — Democrats have used other tools lately, including aggressively promoting vaccines, opening testing centers and deploying strike teams to beleaguered hospitals.

One model of how Democrats might speak to the new mood of voters is in Colorado, where Gov. Jared Polis has been unusually blunt in saying that it is time to treat the coronavirus as a manageable disruption, more like the flu. Last month he told Coloradans that if they were unvaccinated and wound up in the hospital, it was their “own darn fault.” Regarding masks, he said that state health authorities had no business telling people “what to wear.”

The coronavirus was now something “we live with,” Mr. Polis said in an interview. “We will be living with it in three years. We’ll be living with it in five years. We have to learn how to empower people to protect themselves.”

He looks forward to a time soon when the virus is “endemic,” meaning that it will circulate in the population, but people will carry on without major disruptions to their lives.

Scientists say it’s possible that Omicron, because of its lightning spread, is setting the stage for that return to normalcy, although they also warn that more variants — and more upheaval — could be ahead.

Still, “live with it” is hardly the message Mr. Biden delivered on July 4, when cases were low. At the time, the president declared that the country was “closer than ever to declaring our independence” from the virus.

Asked recently if the coronavirus was “here to stay,” Mr. Biden acknowledged that it would never be wiped out but said he believed Americans could control it.

To merely battle the virus to a truce, rather than to defeat it triumphantly, might strike some voters as less of a victory than the president promised. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked on Mr. Biden’s campaign, said that the president and his party were paying a political price for an unpredictable pandemic.

“This up and down is really taking a toll, and it’s taking a toll on all elected officials,” she said. “Voters appreciate Biden’s style, they appreciate that he listens to the science, but people are just so frustrated that it’s always going to seem like too little too late.”

“They wanted to believe if we all did the right thing we could make this better immediately,” she said.

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