California Recall Elder
Supporters of Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder watch results for the California gubernatorial recall election Tuesday, September 14, 2021, in Costa Mesa, California. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

There is a vibrant debate among liberal pundits over whether Republicans are committed to irresponsible COVID-19 policy as a matter of incompetence, anti-science conspiracism, and an antithesis to communitarian philosophy, or a deliberate attempt to sabotage the Biden administration even at the expense of their own voters. See, for instance, Jonathan Chait making the former case and Brian Beutler arguing the latter.

Regardless of the GOP motivation, however, the party’s rejection of responsible public health appears to be backfiring heavily. Republican-controlled states are not only performing worse on COVID by every metric; they are also inviting the wrath of average Americans against them for endangering the public.

Case in point: the disastrous California recall election. Earlier this year, conservative activists angered by state COVID restrictions—and hopeful of riding a wave of populist fury—gathered the signatures required to force a recall election of California Governor Gavin Newsom. They expected a bitter and apprehensive public to reward them with a takeover of state government that they would be unable to achieve in a normal electoral environment in the deep-blue state.

But it turned out that anger was actually on the side of Californians who were perfectly happy to protect themselves and others from the virus. California was already outperforming most other states in preventing deaths and hospitalizations, even as Florida and other red states absorbed heavy losses due to careless conservative governance. In the closing weeks of the election, California Democrats turned the tables on conservatives, leaning heavily into messaging about COVID and warning that if Republicans took over the governorship, California’s positive example would be ruined and turned into a red-state nightmare.

It worked, and Democrats are following the same example elsewhere in the country, notably Virginia’s upcoming gubernatorial election. As Greg Sargent noted,

Newsom’s TV ads pivoted to leaning hard into public health mandates and into condemning extremist Republican opposition to them.

For instance, one closing spot featured former president Barack Obama warning that recalling Newsom would let Republicans “overturn common sense health and safety measures” and put schoolkids “at risk.” Another ad featured Newsom warning that Republicans would “eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers,” which would “threaten the recovery.”

Sargent adds,

Newsom’s massive victory on Tuesday vindicates liberal rule, and repudiates conservative governance, on the biggest issue facing the country: the resurgence of covid-19.

This provides a future template for Democrats: It suggests they should lean hard into support for public health restrictions in response to covid, and into hammering Republicans for opposing them, as a way to motivate their supporters.

One might argue that California is a blue state that doesn’t presage national trends. Yet California has some of the closest congressional battlegrounds in the country. The exact makeup of these districts is still pending the results of the state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission, but the recall was defeated in hotly contested Orange County and other battlegrounds as well. If Republicans were hoping for Democratic apathy and independent grouchiness over COVID to propel them to midterm victories, it’s not apparent that it will work.

Meanwhile, the national polling on COVID for Republicans remains ugly. A broad majority of Americans favor President Biden’s vaccine mandate proposals. A full 60 percent support vaccine requirements for air travel. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s approval rating is cratering as COVID cases spike in the state.

And, of course, the human toll is catastrophic. As of this writing, the United States is once again suffering more than 2,000 deaths per day—the most since over 200 days ago. It is uncomfortable but necessary to point out that it is a primarily Republican plague at this point: The infection rate is twice as high in red counties as in blue ones. Seventy percent of new cases are emerging in red states, and the red-blue divide in vaccination rates is stark.

So it scarcely matters if Republicans are doing this out of ideological fervor or Machiavellian conspiracy. Regardless, the real results of laissez-faire public health policy are a clear abysmal failure. Insofar as it’s an intentional ploy to drag down Biden’s approval rating and the broader economy, the slight dip in public confidence well over a year out from the midterms is hardly worth the anger Republicans are stoking from everyday Americans who have been vaccinated, or are soon to be, and furious over being endangered by conservative anti-vax, anti-mask extremists.

The GOP intransigence is fiercely motivating Democrats to vote even in off-year and special elections, even as Republicans and their conservative infotainment allies are functionally killing and incapacitating literally thousands of their own voters almost every day, including and especially the ones so politically engaged and devoted to the cause that they’re willing to risk death rather than wear a mask or get a shot.

It may well be that Republicans still sweep to their historically expected midterm victories. But it’s certainly no guarantee, and no thanks to their reckless approach to COVID. That approach—whatever may be motivating it—is costing American lives. It is rightly damaging their reputations, and if there is any justice, it will cost them again in the coming elections.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.