Democrats Pivot on Covid-19 Message to Urge Return to ‘Normal’

  • Vulnerable incumbents, campaign chief ready to ease mandates
  • Some warn not to overpromise after variant infection spikes

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Vulnerable House Democrats say they want to show voters the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and tout their party’s leadership in bringing the country back to normalcy.

The comments this week came as Democratic governors in multiple states announced end dates for mask mandates in businesses and schools, as Covid-19 case numbers continue to decline, and as polling indicates more voters are optimistic that the pandemic won’t worsen again.

While some lawmakers remain wary of overpromising a brighter future with the pandemic ongoing, there was a clear message and tone shift from others—with the midterm elections now less than nine months away.

“As the pandemic has evolved, the way we talk about it has to do that as well,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who faces a more competitive re-election this fall following redistricting.

Democrats must overcome the historical trend of the party in power in the White House losing seats in midterms for any chance of holding the majority. Republicans need a net gain of only five seats to take control.

President Joe Biden’s approval rating, which was just below 40% in the RealClearPolitics average for the first time as of Thursday morning, isn’t helping Democrats. An NBC News survey conducted last month found that voters’ approval of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus had dropped 25 percentage points since April 2021, to 44%. That came after the return of mask mandates and surges in hospitalizations and deaths from the delta and omicron variants.

While governors in blue states such as New York and New Jersey this week began to set timelines for dropping mandates, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing Wednesday that while “we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

Read More: CDC Studies Advice for Easing Mask Rules as States Drop Them

Still, many Democrats on Capitol Hill welcomed the governors’ moves and are calling for leaders to lay out the roadmap to easing restrictions.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Democrats will lead in the country’s return to normalcy from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting back to normal,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said, citing the proliferation of vaccines and testing as allowing that to happen.

“People were sick of the whole damn thing,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who’s running for an open Senate seat and represents a politically competitive district.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Tuesday that Democrats will give voters a “clear off-ramp” from the pandemic and deliver “a definite plan for resumption of our normal lives.”

“All sorts of bad things can happen, but I don’t believe in hiding under the bed,” Maloney reiterated to reporters on Wednesday. “We have right now a science-based approach that will allow us to get out from under the mandates, and that’s good. It’s time to get back to our lives.”

Some lawmakers are pushing Biden to use his State of the Union address on March 1 to signal the next stage of the pandemic, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told reporters Wednesday.

“I think we need a new phase,” Slotkin said, adding that the turning point should come after those younger than 5 can get a Covid-19 vaccine.

No Escape

Polling by Democratic outfit Navigator Research conducted in early February found that 47% of registered voters said the worst of the pandemic was over, nine percentage points higher than a few weeks earlier.

Jarrett Lewis, a partner at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, said “what’s different now is I think that there has been an acceptance from voters that this thing is here to stay.”

That’s coinciding with a messaging shift from some Democrats and continued criticism from Republicans, who plan to slam Democrats for supporting mandates and restrictions they see as a step too far, said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Voters aren’t going to forget that Democrats ignored science, caved to their radical base, and imposed unnecessary lockdowns and mandates on their constituents,” he said.

Last summer, Covid-19 cases bottomed out at a couple thousand cases a day, prompting the CDC to drop its recommendation that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public and for Biden to praise that “great milestone” in a Rose Garden speech. Then, the delta and omicron variants of the virus surged, mask mandates returned, and the number of daily fatalities skyrocketed.

With daily deaths from the virus, largely among those who remain unvaccinated, comparable to the winter before vaccines were widely available, not all Democrats are ready to alter a cautious message.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat, said “there’s still a lot of concern” among “the base of the base” of the party. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who’s running for re-election, said in a brief interview that “all of us need to be vigilant,” citing the possibility of future variants.

Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) warned that Covid-19 is “still a really difficult situation.”

That, she said, makes it all the more important to talk about the work Democrats did do. This week, lawmakers touted the benefits of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law (Public Law 117-2) from last year, which surged support to health-care providers, state and local governments, businesses, and schools.

“That’s what I’m going for, that we are crafting policy that gets us back to normal, not just that this is a Covid bill,” Axne said.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a former DCCC chair who represents a district Donald Trump carried in the last two presidential elections, warned in an interview that the pandemic’s “unpredictability” complicated political promises of a solution, even if she shares the desire for the pandemic to become a relic of the past.

“I always made it a habit when I was running, whether it was for the first time or for the fifth time, to make promises that I know I can keep,” said Bustos, who’s not running for re-election this year.

Policy Push

Democrats said they don’t think their work to combat Covid-19 and its aftershocks is done. Ryan wants to see more aid to restaurants. Pappas wants public-health agencies to be better prepared for future pandemics. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) pointed to weaknesses in the labor market among women, indicating a need for more support for child care.

“We are looking at helping people come out of isolation, come out of quarantine, and making sure that our children, especially, are being socialized,” she said

Maloney acknowledged the need for continued federal aid for front-line health-care workers and vulnerable populations.

“But the rest of us, you know, have had enough of this nonsense,” Maloney said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at zcohen@bloombergindustry.com; Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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