Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

Republicans aiming to retake the U.S. House next year will have to defend the party’s pandemic record, especially in Sun Belt districts that stand out for their grim death tolls or lackluster vaccinations.

Forty-seven Democrat-held districts and 21 Republican seats are at the center of the fight. High Covid-19 death rates or low vaccine penetration stand to be issues in around 20 of them, 15 to the potential advantage of Democrats.

While voters’ memories are often short, none have been through a combined public-health, economic and political crisis in such a short time. Whatever lessons they take will determine whether Democrats -- who as of Tuesday will have a seven-seat margin in the 435-member body -- can avoid the usual midterm setback for a new president’s party.

“Individual experiences do really matter,” said Emily Sydnor, an assistant political science professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. “I’m not sure I can think of an event like this that took apart our daily lives day after day for as long as this did.”

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

Showdowns will unfold in places like the heavily Hispanic Texas border area, where a disproportionately high number of residents died -- and where Republican get-out-the-vote efforts surprised Democrats last November. Several toss-up districts are in states such as Georgia and Indiana, which have vaccination rates far below the national average.

It isn’t clear whether lingering Covid grievances will extend to members of Congress, instead of governors or the president. And blowback -- justified or not -- can work both ways. For all the voters grieving a Covid-19 tragedy, others may be angered by lengthy restrictions on schools and businesses.

Who Benefits?

The overarching question: Will Democrats benefit enough politically from the pandemic’s fallout to offset Republican momentum and census-driven redistricting, which is likely to favor the GOP?

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

Democrats hold all but one of the most competitive districts where deaths per million are at least 50% higher than the national average. That partly reflects the fact that Republicans are targeting more seats, because they’re in the minority.

Texas is home to four competitive districts where the virus turned particularly deadly, and Democrats hold three. The hardest-hit was Democrat Filemon Vela’s 34th District, which includes Brownsville. Vela is retiring, opening a seat where his party has seen its margins of victory shrink.

Republicans put the district on their pre-election target list, but their chances may hinge on the parties’ divergent approaches to the virus. GOP Governor Greg Abbott moved quickly to lift Texas’s mask mandate and open the state, even as deaths remained high in the Rio Grande Valley.

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

“Anger is a powerful tool when it comes to political mobilization,” said Sydnor.

Still, Rey Gonzalez, a Republican who lost to Vela in 2020 and may run again in 2022, argued his party’s anti-abortion, “traditional values” messaging -- and even its immigration policies -- resonate with conservative Hispanics.

Like Trump, Gonzalez deflects all GOP blame for the toll. “China is accountable,” he said. “We were in a bad spot, but we were one of many places in a bad spot.”

The virus had already done much damage when Texans voted in 2020, but Democrats who predicted a presidential upset found instead that their support among Hispanics wasn’t as robust as expected. Then-candidate Joe Biden won many of those counties by a slimmer margin than Hillary Clinton. Vela won by the smallest margin since he was elected to the House in 2012.

Vaccine Rollouts

If officials fail at vaccine rollouts, communities may be vulnerable to outbreaks in the future -- and Covid could still pose a threat 18 months from now.

Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Nevada and Ohio have poor vaccination rates and congressional seats that may be up for grabs. In those states -- five run by Republican governors, two by Democrats -- the adult vaccination rate is at least 5 percentage points behind the national average.

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projects Covid-19 will resurge in winter 2021. He said the virus is poised to become a seasonal threat and less-vaccinated communities are vulnerable.

“You’re lagging behind, you’re at a higher risk and, yes, you’ll have outbreaks,” Mokdad said.

Mokdad said the rhetoric of the Republican Party has played a role in lagging red states. About 28% of Republicans say they won’t get a vaccine or will do so only if required, compared with about 7% of Democrats, according to a KFF Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor survey last month.

Among important House states in 2022, the gulf is most significant for Georgia, part of a Deep South region that’s the nation’s most vaccine-challenged.

Democrat Marvin Arrington Jr., a commissioner in Fulton County -- in the key Sixth District -- attributed the lag to lower demand. “The biggest way to address that is through education and information,” Arrington said.

The Sixth and Seventh districts in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs, held by Democrats Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux respectively, have been competitive for years. The districts are doing better on vaccinations than many parts of the state, but they’re surrounded by laggards.

“I do think that our state government in particular bears significant accountability for this,” Bourdeaux said in an interview Monday. “Vaccination is not just about public health, but if we have those kinds of outbreaks, if people become afraid to go to establishments where there are crowds of people, that will be a drag on the economic recovery as well.”

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

New Jersey Fallout

New Jerseyans experienced the brunt of both the virus and the strict limits on people and businesses. But residents have been largely pleased with their leadership, including Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat up for re-election in November.

Four New Jersey House seats are in play, three of which stand out for having seen deaths per capita at least 50% worse than the national average.

Garden State voters have been willing to support Republicans for the House, but the party’s Covid-19 messaging may have turned off some, according to Matt Hale, an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

“The national Republican response to Covid has really created a greater distrust of the Republican brand than I think there used to be,” Hale said from Highland Park, noting that GOP politicians typically succeed there by courting the political center. “New Jersey as a state has a pretty low threshold for crazy.”

Murphy has 57% approval in the latest Monmouth University poll, and his handling of the virus is a major reason, according to Patrick Murray, director of the West Long Branch school’s polling institute. “He’s been pretty fortunate in that the majority of the public has gone along with both his lockdown and his loosening,” Murray said.

Republican 2022 Hopes Run Through Districts Scarred by Covid

New Jersey residents -- both by mandate and choice -- changed their lives in the past year more than the average U.S. resident. The state is still restricting indoor sporting events and concerts, but Murphy is lifting many capacity limits at retail stores and restaurants starting May 19.

“People wanted steady hands and leadership,” said Hale, the political science professor. “People across the spectrum are pretty angered by people who are using this for politics. The people who are going to benefit are the ones that stood back and did the job.”

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