WASHINGTON — Democrats from President Joe Biden to city council members have faced intense backlash to Covid-19 mask and vaccine mandates. But fresh off his lopsided victory this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has a message for his party: Suck it up.
Heading into next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats will have to defend their razor-thin majorities in Congress, Newsom and others in the party argue the results in California, where Tuesday’s recall election sometimes felt like a referendum on coronavirus mandates, show they are not only good policy, but also good politics.
Democrats need to “stiffen our spines” and ignore the backlash from a vocal minority, Newsom told CBS this week.
“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a motivating factor in this election,” he said. “This was an odd-year, off-month election and the turnout was off the charts because people were motivated because they understood what was at stake. The consequences were that clear, and Democrats, I hope, were paying attention.”
Democrats are facing opposition to vaccine mandates from within their coalition. Labor unions, historically strong backers of Democrats, have fought mandates for their membership.
Frustration with health restrictions galvanized the opposition to Newsom and led to the failed attempt to remove him. But Newsom ended up making his pandemic response the centerpiece of his campaign, warning that Republicans would undo his first-in-the-nation school mask mandate if they ousted him.
That proved to be a good bet, with an NBC News exit poll showing large majorities of California recall voters supporting his approach.
Getting Democrats to vote was Newsom’s chief challenge and it will be one of the main hurdles for his party in 2022. Newsom advisers credit the mandate message with helping to drive turnout to near-2018 levels, higher than expected.
Of course, California is bluer than the rest of the country. And the battle for control of Congress will be fought in swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as moderate parts of red states, like the Houston suburbs in Texas.
But Patrick Murray, who runs the nonpartisan Monmouth University poll, which released a national survey on Covid mandates this week, said there is broad support for mandates across the country, even in places far less liberal than California.
“When we broke out red states and blue states by the (2020) presidential vote, it was in the majority in both types of states,” he said. “That suggests that independent voters or swing voters in those states are unhappy with the Republican stance on dealing with the pandemic.”
If mandates were unpopular, Murray noted, one would expect Newsom’s margin of victory to be narrow than his last elections. That didn’t happen. Newsom was elected three years ago 62-38 percent. And he defeated the recall this week 64-36 percent, though not all votes have been counted yet.
“At the very least, the mandates aren’t hurting Democrats. And there is evidence that it’s probably helping them, at least right now,” Murray said. “A year from now, we don’t know.”
The 2022 midterm is still more than a year out and opinions could change, of course.
Perhaps the pandemic will have waned and voters won’t be interested in hearing about how Republicans didn’t support vaccine mandates. Or maybe the pandemic will drag on and voters will grow wary of the mandates and gravitate toward the more freedom-oriented GOP message.
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But for now, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., charged with leading Democrats’ efforts to defend their majority as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on MSNBC that his candidates should “own the anger” over the pandemic