The issue is poised to take on a heightened role in several competitive swing-state Senate races. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the exception to Senate Democrats’ refusal to talk about rolling back pandemic restrictions, on Thursday said that Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s decision to end mask mandates was “the right call.” She is among the most vulnerable Democrats defending seats this year in a fiercely competitive battleground race.
Adam Laxalt, the Republican frontrunner in the race who had criticized Cortez Masto in recent days for her silence on the issue, tweeted in response to her position that only the “political science” had changed, noting that by the state’s own criteria, Covid- 19 transmission is still high in Nevada.
“It’s actually a pretty easy answer: that it should be an individual’s decision,” Democratic strategist Neil Oxman said of how candidates should answer questions about mask requirements. “I don’t know what the DSCC has sent down to its candidates about polling and what’s the safe thing to do.”
Even in a Democratic stronghold like Washington state, Republicans see opportunity in the politics of masking, convinced that Americans are ready to get on with life — beginning with an end to mask mandates. In a contest that some Republicans insist could be competitive in 2022, GOP Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley is zeroing in on Democratic Sen. Patty Murray for blocking legislation that would prohibit mask mandates in schools.
Murray spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday against a bill by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) That would withhold federal funding from schools that require children to wear masks, arguing that local authorities should be able to make the decision on school masking. Indoor and school mask requirements remain in effect in the state, though Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee this week lifted an outdoor mask mandate.
In response to a question from POLITICO about whether she supports rolling back additional pandemic restrictions, Murray provided a statement emphasizing the importance of “listening to public health experts in your own state and community.”
“All of us want to get past this pandemic and while it’s thrown us curveballs every time we turn around, we all know what we need to do, especially if the numbers go up: we need masks, ventilation, and testing so people can make decisions about whether they can to go work or school safely,” Murray said, adding that “as we’re seeing numbers like cases and hospitalizations go down, we can ease some precautions.”
A Crosscut-Elway poll released in early January found Murray had only a 3-point lead against a generic Republican opponent, survey data that Sen. Rick Scott(R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has pointed to in recent interviews as a sign of her vulnerability.
Republicans also see promise in Colorado — where gov. Jared Polis has drawn national attention in recent months as the leading Democrat calling for an end to emergency pandemic policies, declaring in December that the “silent majority” of vaccinated adults could make their own decisions. Up for reelection in a race that until recently wasn’t viewed as potentially competitive, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), has sat out of the conversation.
Bennet, who announced in 2020 he “strongly” supported Polis’ decision to enact a statewide mask mandate, hasn’t publicly backed the governor’s more recent approach. A Bennet spokesperson on Friday said the senator supports “Polis’ efforts to return to normalcy.”
The partisan gap in polling reveals some of the forces driving the Senate Democrats’ reluctance to abandon mask mandates. While a Monmouth University poll released in late January found that 70 percent of Americans overall — and virtually the same figure among independent voters — agreed it is time to “accept that COVID is here to stay” and “get on with our lives,” among Democrats, that number was just 47 percent.
Oxman said he doesn’t believe Democrats championing the rollback of restrictions would convert many voters come November. And candidates would run the risk of upsetting the Democratic base, Oxman said, pointing to recent data showing how differently the issue plays with Democratic voters.
“I think because it’s kind of split in some of these places, Democrats might be avoiding it,” he said. “There are a lot of Democrats who would think, ‘Wait a second, what is this guy? Trump?’ I don’t think you stand up there and start screaming about how Fauci is wrong.”
Zack Roday, a Republican strategist who also works for N2 America, a center-right group targeting suburban voters, said it’s a major mistake for Democrats to ignore public sentiment on pandemic restrictions.
In a tough election year for Democrats, Cortez Masto and Sisolak — who are running in a battleground state — were “savvy” to take the positions that they did this week, Roday said.
The firm earlier this month released an ad that showed children watching a packed football game and a red carpet event on television, contrasted with students sitting spaced apart and masked in classrooms and waiting in line to have their temperatures taken. The group made a small ad buy last week to run the spot in a handful of television markets during The View, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning and the Olympic games.
“It’s the most defining issue of the last several years, and you’re speaking to your base and only your base,” Roday said of Democrats’ messaging on restrictive Covid-19 policies. “K-12 parents, combined with the center of the electorate, are only getting spoken to by one political party. It makes for a really bad recipe for Democrats trying to hold the Senate, House, statehouses and so on.”