ABOVE PHOTO: In this April 20, 2020 file photo protesters demonstrate at the state Capital in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
By Marc Levy
HARRISBURG, Pa. — With legions out of work, Republicans across the critical battleground states are trying to lay blame for the economic wreckage of the coronavirus outbreak on Democratic governors, ramping up a political strategy that is likely to shape the debate in the run-up to the presidential election.
In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — all three swing states with Democrats in charge — state Republican lawmakers, after an initial detente, have grown fiercely critical of the stay-at-home orders or business shutdowns imposed by governors to limit the spread of the coronavirus, casting them as the work of overzealous, nanny-state Democrats.
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, GOP legislators have gone so far as to try to strip the Democratic governors of the power to enforce the restrictions on businesses.
Stay-at-home orders have been imposed by Republican and Democratic governors alike, acting on the advice of state and federal health officials and guidance from President Donald Trump.
But the backlash comes as some governors, mostly Republicans, are beginning to ease their orders, and the GOP, led by Trump, is attempting to position itself as the defender of the economy, even if it means taking health risks.
“We’re going to pressure this governor. We’re going to get you guys your jobs. We’re going to get money back in your pocket!” Republican state Rep. Aaron Bernstine of Pennsylvania told a protest of hundreds of people Monday at the state Capitol. It was one of several staged across the country in the past two weeks, and another is scheduled for Friday in Wisconsin’s capital.
In Pennsylvania, Republican state Rep. Russ Diamond blasted Gov. Tom Wolf’s “lockdown,” while GOP state Sen. Doug Mastriano urged protesters to “rise up” and “say ‘no’ to tyranny.”
The hard-line messages marked the arrival of a more contentious phase in the virus fallout — the political fight over who to blame for the economic devastation. Implicit in the messaging is the potential political disaster ahead for Republicans if jobs do not return by November and Trump is blamed for unemployment.
Between Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all of which narrowly flipped to Republican in the 2016 presidential election and handed Trump his victory, more than 3 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, and economists expect that high unemployment will last well beyond November’s election.
Before the virus hit, Trump and his party had planned on running on a strong economy. The new reality forces Republicans on the ballot to adjust.
But the effort to target Democratic governors has challenges. Right now, stay-at-home orders are broadly popular with both Democrats and Republicans, according to a new AP-NORC survey. And Americans have generally given higher marks to their state government’s response than to the federal response. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating has been stagnant.
“Some politicians who started off this crisis with more goodwill and higher ratings might be able to (avoid blame), but I don’t see where the president can do that,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania-based Republican campaign strategist. But polling does find some growing impatience with the virus restrictions, particularly among Republicans. In late March, 60% of Republicans living in states led by Democratic governors approved of their state’s response. But the new AP-NORC poll found that share had slipped to 49% in just three weeks.
In the interim, Trump appeared to have shifted his focus from managing the public health crisis to looking ahead to “reopening” the economy. Governors have broad authority to impose and lift the stay-at-home orders that closed businesses, parks and schools. The White House has issued guidance on the public health conditions that should be met before those orders are eased, but Trump has called on some of his supporters to “LIBERATE!” their states. Many in his party took the cue.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans have complained about the breadth of the shutdown and launched a flurry of bills designed to limit Wolf’s broad authority. In Wisconsin, Republicans who control the Legislature asked the state Supreme Court to block Gov. Tony Evers from extending a stay-at-home order through May 26.
In their lawsuit, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald argued that the Department of Health Services secretary exceeded her authority by exercising “czar-like powers” that, if left in place, will devastate the economy and leave Wisconsin “in shambles.”
Evers predicted more deaths if the Legislature wins the case.
“People die every day because of this, and the more we screw around with it, the more people die,” Evers said.
In Michigan — home to the third-most reported deaths related to COVID-19 in the country — Republicans have ramped up their criticism of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Her order is an outlier, they say, and they want it amended to allow lawn care services, garden centers, construction projects and other business activity. Like other governors, Wolf, Whitmer and Evers say they cannot significantly ease restrictions until they expand testing and keep those infected out of the workplace. They, along with some Republican governors, say they don’t yet have sufficient testing supplies from the federal government.
Brock McCleary, a Pennsylvania-based Republican pollster, said governors seem to have the advantage right now in public approval.
But, he said, perspectives could change, and Trump and Republicans could benefit if voters look back at the shutdowns and say, “Gee, not that many people died. Was it all worth it?’”
During Monday’s protest at Pennsylvania’s Capitol, Republican state Sen. Judy Ward was booed when she told the crowd that it “frightens” her that so many people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder without face masks.
She also urged Wolf to reopen the state in a “graduated way” and told the crowd to be mindful of what scientists say. Then she railed against the shutdown.
“Do we need the government to mandate that certain businesses close? No! Do we need the government to choose winners and losers? No! Do we need the government to mandate that we must wear a face mask?” she shouted.
The crowd shouted “No!” back.