WASHINGTON — Even as the pandemic fades from our daily lives, it is at the forefront in Republican campaigns across the country, with candidates arguing that scientific institutions have amassed too much power.
Among deeply conservative and often Trump-backed congressional and gubernatorial candidates, calls to investigate or even jail Anthony Fauci have become regular campaign rallying cries. Ads lambasting Democrats for school shutdowns, business closures and mask mandates are running in heated races including in Georgia and Florida, where Democratic candidates trail their opponents in the polls.
The rhetoric is especially hot in a Washington state race to replace Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment — and subsequently lost her primary. GOP candidate Joe Kent called for Fauci to be charged with murder for “the scam that is Covid.” He has also called coronavirus vaccines “experimental gene therapies,” promoted the idea that the virus was created in a lab, and pledged to fight federal pandemic guidance.
“We can never allow our economy to be locked down again by the dictates of our leaders who are acting like tyrants and never again to government-mandated lockdowns,” he said at a recent debate against Democratic candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.
In some ways, the anti-science rhetoric is even more intense now than it was in the last election cycle. While former President Trump was in office and seeking reelection in 2020, many Republicans held fire over the pandemic response and efficacy of vaccines, which Trump had signaled would be ready before Election Day. Funds flowed from Congress to buy vaccines, tests and treatments and support small businesses.
Now, two years into President Biden’s tenure, conservative campaign ads and messaging about the pandemic are centering around a fundamental question: “It’s whether or not the federal government can ever close your child’s school down again, or business, and whether or not you allow big decisions to be made on what scientists believe,” said Robert Blendon, a professor emeritus at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he is on a team tracking midterms polling.
Pollsters and politicians agree that inflation, the Jan. 6 investigation and abortion laws are motivating most voters, particularly independents and moderates in swing elections. But the rhetoric around Covid-19 and federal health officials such as Fauci is playing strongly among conservatives who have bristled at federal reach during the pandemic, even though many policies, such as remote schooling and mask guidance, were fleshed out at a state level.
While both parties’ spending on Covid-19 messaging has plummeted since the 2020 election cycle, Republicans’ ad buys are now outpacing Democrats’ on the subject, according to data provided by Ad Impact. GOP candidates have pumped nearly $46 million into Covid-related campaign ads compared to $159 million in the 2020 cycle; Democrats have channeled $17 million toward the topic, a sliver of the $476 million spent during 2020.
That is on top of record campaign spending in 2022 as every House seat and 35 senatorial seats are in contention, while 36 states and territories are holding gubernatorial races. On Capitol Hill, just a few races could effectively change the congressional agenda: Democrats hold a razor-thin Senate majority while in the House, Republicans only need to pick up eight seats, with a potential advantage in at least three because of recent redistricting.
In races for governor, many Republicans have established themselves against the Biden administration’s Covid-19 response and what they argue is federal overreach.
Take Arizona Republican Kari Lake, who was endorsed by Trump in a tight gubernatorial race, and who has called to “lock up” “that liar” Fauci and openly questioned the safety of coronavirus vaccines.
“I think it is extremely wrong for government, business and schools to mandate this vaccine,” reads Lake’s website, which goes on to say people have the right to choose.
Lake also said in fall 2021 that she had taken hydroxychloroquine to ward off Covid-19, long after its use to prevent the virus had been debunked. She’s since said on the campaign trail that she would make the malaria drug and another disproven treatment, ivermectin, available to Arizonans.
“We need to pass some legislation to save people from these vaccine mandates and make it easier for us to get these lifesaving drugs,” she said at an event.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has long made Fauci, mask requirements and business shutdowns into campaign fodder and even merch. The governor, who sold “Don’t Fauci my Florida” T-shirts last year, launched an ad in February accusing Fauci of “flip-flopping” on Covid-19 strategies, and then in an August campaign stop with Sen. Marco Rubio called Fauci a “little elf” who someone should “chuck across the Potomac.”
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has run ads dubbing his opponent Stacey Abrams “shutdown Stacey” for backing federal guidance and voicing concern that schools were reopening too quickly.
The political messaging is playing out during record-high and deeply partisan skepticism of figures like Fauci and federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While roughly the same share of both parties agree that the government was unprepared for the pandemic, more than half of Democrats say they trust public health officials, while just 15% of Republicans say the same, according to the latest Pew polling.
Rhetoric in several races has thrown typically apolitical health organizations into the debate. In a rare move, the Minnesota Medical Association’s political action committee in September endorsed the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, current Gov. Tim Walz, over Republican nominee Scott Jensen, even though he is himself a physician. Jensen said earlier this year that he remains unvaccinated against the coronavirus, which he describes as a mild respiratory illness. He has also said that the federal government has taken a Hitler-like approach to containing the virus.
“The ongoing global pandemic and other critical healthcare issues are at stake this year and that compelled the organization to support a candidate who would best advocate for the health of Minnesotans,” the Minnesota Medical Association PAC’s CEO Will Nicholson said in a statement at the time.
“In many ways, doubts about expertise have fed into the whole populist movement, which essentially is … anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-expertise,” said Whit Ayres, a political consultant with North Star Opinion Research who has advised GOP candidates including DeSantis. “Populism has a real problem in presenting a positive vision for the country. It’s ‘the experts are part of the establishment, so we’re against them too.’”
Besides the deteriorating public confidence in scientific institutions, the political trends spell major repercussions for federal health agencies in a GOP-controlled House or Senate, with vocal critics of the Covid-19 response, including Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, poised to chair key committees that could unleash probes or question spending.
Paul is not currently running for reelection but nevertheless has stumped for conservative candidates, railing against Fauci. “I promise you I will subpoena every last record from Dr. Fauci,” he told a crowd in Kentucky this month as he campaigned for gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron, the state’s current attorney general.
Democrats’ health care messaging has focused far more on abortion rights and this summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes provisions to lower prescription drug costs — a typically bipartisan issue that should resonate with voters.
The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision this spring didn’t turn the tides for the midterm elections, but it did level the field, insists Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked for the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“If history is our guide, this midterm elections should already be over, because Democrats are in power, there are challenges in the economy, and that should be an automatic massive midterm win for Republicans,” said Ferguson. “That doesn’t mean its going to be a good midterms for Democrats … but the fact that it’s still ongoing is partially a function of how salient and how compelling the issue of abortion rights is for people.”
On the other hand, Democrats’ drug pricing win, however much it upset industry, is unlikely to move the needle in campaign ads, said Ayres, the GOP pollster.
The law’s key reform, to let the government negotiate prices for certain costly medicines, won’t subvert that immediate reality for many Americans, especially because it starts with a small set of medicines, and doesn’t kick in until 2026, he argued. “Controlling the price of 10 [drugs] is going to scratch the surface of drug costs.”