Romney’s Lyme Disease Mailer: A Play for the Christian Right?

If you live in DC’s Northern Virginia suburbs, you may have received a Romney campaign mailer vowing to eradicate Lyme Disease, “A Massive Epidemic Threatening Virginia.” At least a few incredulous residents already have, which sent the slow-news Friday media into a giggle fit.

But make no mistake, people. Northern Virginia takes Lyme seriously. As I reported this summer (see sidebar) Loudoun County has spent $20,000 soaking its public parks with high-octane pest repellent, and Governor Bob McDonnell created a statewide taskforce on the disease in 2010. Go hang out in NoVa government buildings and you’ll find Lyme pamphlets for the taking. In other words, ginning up fears about Lyme may prove to be a smart bit of retail politics. And it might also be a backdoor way of mobilizing evangelical support. Here’s how.

The claims made in Romney’s mailing, which echo an August letter he wrote to the co-chairs of the House Lyme Disease Caucus, reflect the findings of McDonnell’s taskforce. The man who chaired that taskforce, Michael Farris, is no epidemiologist. Farris is the Chancellor of evangelical Patrick Henry College, and President of the Home School Legal Defense Association. Farris, who says his wife and seven of his ten children have the tick-borne disease, estimates that one in six Virginians are infected. (The CDC reported 756 Virginia cases in 2011.) He also argues the disease is chronic, a claim the Infectious Disease Society of America says is bogus. Experts be damned, Romney’s all ears.

On September 13th Farris was invited into the Romney tour bus for a chat with the candidate and his strategist Stuart Stevens, after a rally in Fairfax City, Va. Farris, who has been an outspoken critic of Romney’s, seems to have changed his tune after their conversation, during which he advocated getting the CDC “out of the way.” “Romney had a family member that had just been diagnosed with Lyme Disease,” Farris told me. “He was concerned.” Farris continued: “I was favorably impressed with my visit with him. I felt like he really listened.”

One more tidbit: Farris said he’s doubly encouraged by Romney’s support after having being spurned by the Obama administration. In October 2011, Farris told me, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle called him to talk Lyme; apparently, a friend of Obama’s had been diagnosed, and the President was growing concerned. So, DeParle set up a January 2012 meeting between Farris and a doctor at the Department of Health of Human Services. Farris, whose own findings are not exactly mainstream, never heard from the White House again.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.