Local Politics: Anti-pandemic politics could be near a tipping point

Wide public support for vaccine- and mask-mandates amid the delta surge could have some politicians reconsidering tactics — even in Ohio

Craig Calcaterra
Maybe Republican politicians are finally done being motivated almost solely by this crowd.

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom faced an effort to remove him from office. The campaign against him polled at about 50-50 for weeks, but polls broke in his favor in the final stages of the campaign. Those polls broke at roughly the same time that Newsom's public messaging became focused almost exclusively on turning the recall into a referendum on anti-pandemic measures, such as aggressively pushing for vaccinations and the imposition of mask mandates. Meanwhile, Newsom’s primary recall competitor, the Republican Larry Elder, boasted that he would roll back as many of the anti-pandemic safety measures as he could immediately after being sworn into office.

Newsom won the election seeking his recall in a landslide: 64 percent to 36 percent, with analysts largely crediting his focus on the pandemic response for the win. California voters may not be super keen on Newsom, but it seems pretty clear that they did not want any part of Elder's irresponsible pandemic denialism. 

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As all of this was unfolding in California, Ohio legislators took up their own pandemic response bill, House Bill 248. That bill seeks to ban vaccine mandates from hospitals, nursing homes and colleges, and would even ban institutions from requiring long-mandated vaccinations against preventable infectious diseases such as polio, measles, the flu and more. If you're fuzzy on House Bill 248, just know that that's the one for which hearings were held over the summer during which a Republican lawmaker invited a doctor who believes that COVID-19 vaccines magnetize their recipients and "interface" with 5G towers to testify.

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While Ohio Republicans have, for the most part, leaned heavily into their own brand of pandemic irresponsibility, one got the sense a few weeks ago that perhaps House Bill 248 was a bridge too far even for many of them. That's when party leadership — with a healthy bit of pressure from more moderate, pro-business types such as former Congressmen-turned-lobbyists Steve Stivers and Pat Tiberi — put the bill on hold, with House Speaker Bob Cupp directing House Health Committee Chairman Scott Lipps to "pause" all work on it and for no vote to be held while lawmakers "work with the chairman, the bill’s sponsor and all interested parties on this important issue." Translation: "This bill is even too crazy for us, and it'd probably be best to bury it."

That's a sentiment that even most of the normally looney Republican caucus seems to have gotten behind. Last week, after President Joe Biden announced new vaccine and testing requirements that could impact as many as 100 million Americans, State Rep. Jennifer Gross — the one who invited Dr. Magnets/5G towers to testify — moved to force a vote on House Bill 248. She needs 50 signatures from fellow legislators to do so. She has only two so far.

And with this, I believe, we are finally beginning to see the limits of politicization of the pandemic.  

Ohio is not California by any stretch of the imagination, but 18 months into all of this, I believe the same dynamic is at play here, there and almost everywhere else. A dynamic in which cheap and easy pandemic nihilism on the part of politicians no longer rallies the faithful quite like it did even a few months ago, when it seemed like infection numbers would continue to go down no matter what people did. At that point, Republicans felt like they had free rein to politicize public health, fight hard against safety measures and, in many cases, actively promote irresponsibility as a means of performative, pro-freedom posturing. As the delta variant took hold over the past couple of months, however, a clear pattern has emerged: Places where public officials have worked hard to promote vaccinations and masking — places like California — have experienced far lower infection rates than parts of the country where people aligned with State Rep. Jennifer Gross and her ilk are in charge.

Since then, an increasing number of Republicans, I suspect, are beginning to realize that in pushing the COVID nihilism we saw all through 2020 and in the early part of this year they are aligning themselves with an ever-shrinking minority of Americans who are beyond fatigued with the pandemic. While Rep. Gross and her friends can always muster a few hundred loons to hold up signs at anti-vaccination rallies, nationwide fewer than 25 percent of adults have not yet received at least one COVID vaccine shot and only 26 percent oppose a vaccine mandate in their workplace.

Pandemic politics are often described in the same two-sided, horse-race terms with which all partisan disagreements, rightly or wrongly, are described. But vaccinations, masking and doing whatever we can to get out of this mess are not 50-50 issues. I suspect that even Republican lawmakers and public officials are starting to realize this. I suspect that they are realizing that the more they make pro-pandemic politics their identity, the more they will suffer for it.