Democrats face beastly headwinds as they prepare for next year’s congressional elections, but they believe they have a silver bullet or two: mounting rage against COVID-19 vaccine refuseniks and smoldering scorn for former President Donald Trump.
Analysts say anger at vaccine resisters helped propel California Gov. Gavin Newsom to a surprisingly decisive victory last week in a recall election. In Virginia, gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is trying to harness the same anger as early voting begins there.
“The Newsom campaign was very effective in using the rage against the unvaccinated and the specter of Trumpism to get out Democratic voters,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of politics at the University of Mary Washington. “All indications are that McAuliffe is using the same playbook, and the success in California suggests he might double down on that strategy.”
The surge of the coronavirus delta variant has redrawn and deepened the political battle lines over COVID-19 that seemed to be dissipating just a few months ago.
Vaccinated Americans, who had a taste of 2019-style freedom in the late spring and early summer, are steaming about the return to mask requirements and are looking for retribution at the polls.
President Biden is helping draw the lines. He has reversed his promise not to impose vaccine mandates, ordered federal workers and contractors to get the jab, and told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to devise rules to impose a mandate on larger businesses.
“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Mr. Biden said.
He brushed aside worries about side effects and skirted over the fact that the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech is the only shot fully licensed by the Food and Drug Administration.
His scolding won rave reviews from the vaccinated left but infuriated conservatives who see vaccine mandates as government overreach at its worst.
The test will be whether conservatives’ anger over mandates matches the left’s vaccination frenzy.
Republican governors, including those who encourage vaccination, are challenging Mr. Biden’s mandates.
Among them is New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who is considering a challenge next year against Sen. Maggie Hassan, one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in the midterm elections.
“I can promise you this: We will be ready for the legal challenges that are likely to come, and New Hampshire will participate one way or another,” Mr. Sununu said. “We need folks to get vaccinated. There’s just no question about that. But this whole, with a sweep of a pen, we’re going to force it on 100 million Americans. … This was not the right approach.”
New Hampshire voters are split on the issue. A poll from St. Anselm College showed that 50% of registered voters supported vaccination mandates and 47% opposed the idea. The responses fell mainly along partisan lines: 85% of Democrats supported mandates, 80% of Republicans opposed it and “undeclared” voters were evenly divided.
In Virginia, Mr. McAuliffe is betting that voters are more favorable to mandates. The current governor, fellow Democrat Ralph Northam, announced last month that he would require universal masking in all K-12 schools.
A Monmouth University poll released this week found that 67% of registered voters in Virginia support the school mask mandate and 58% would approve of requiring students 12 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Another national poll from Monmouth last week showed most Americans support Mr. Biden’s employment mandate: 63% for health care workers, 58% for federal workers and 55% for government contractors.
A majority also supported requiring proof of vaccination to enter an airliner, indoor arenas and workplaces. Fewer Americans support requirements for restaurants and outdoor entertainment venues.
The divide over COVID-19 requirements has led to fierce debates and ugly encounters outside the political arena.
The New York Post reported last week that three women from Texas attacked a Manhattan restaurant hostess who asked them for proof of vaccination.
The city requires people 12 and older to show proof of vaccination before they can eat indoors at restaurants.
In the Virginia governor’s race, Mr. McAuliffe has signaled confidence that he is on the right side of the issue and pounced on the chance to make that clear Thursday in his first debate with Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee.
“I am for requiring and mandating vaccination,” he said. “He is not.”
Mr. McAuliffe took the issue further by proposing expanded vaccine mandates to include students 12 and older.
Mr. Youngkin said he is a strong advocate for vaccines but added that getting a shot should be up to individuals, including front-line health care workers.
“I respect your ability to make decisions,” he told the debate’s viewers.