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Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, greets Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin before a debate.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, greets Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin at the start of a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
Steve Helber, Associated Press

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Why conservatives keep getting beat by liberals over their handling of the pandemic

After defeating the recall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told Democrats to ‘lean in’ to public health restrictions, while in Virginia, a Republican even filmed a pro-vaccine PSA as candidates argue over mandates

From California to Canada, liberals are campaigning on the promise of fighting the pandemic with public health restrictions and criticizing their conservative opponents for opposing them, and so far, it’s working.

In his victory speech last week after defeating a recall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said voters had sent a message.

“We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic,” Newsom said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made similar remarks after his Liberal Party took the most seats following the election there Monday. During the campaign, Trudeau promised a more aggressive approach to fighting COVID-19 than Conservatives. “You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead, and my friends, that’s exactly what we are ready to do,” he said.

The lesson for national Democrats is to lean in, according to Newsom. Several Democrats are already doing so, and at least one Republican is running as anti-mandate but pro-vaccine, showing how public health has shaped campaign messaging.

“We need to stiffen our spines and lean into keeping people safe and healthy, that we shouldn’t be timid in trying to protect people’s lives,” Newsom told CBS News after the election.

The pandemic fueled California’s recall, thanks to a court-approved extension for the time recall supporters had to gather signatures and Newsom attending an unmasked dinner party at the high-end Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry, which turbocharged their efforts. But Democrats pitched Newsom as the most capable option to handle the pandemic, while characterizing Republican challenger Larry Elder, an opponent of vaccine and mask mandates, as anti-science.

Disagreements over mandates are playing out in other states with off-year gubernatorial elections this year. New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy announced a vaccine mandate for day care facility workers this week, following similar mandates for schools and health care facilities, while his Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, supports expanding vaccine exemptions.

In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe said during a debate last week that Republican Glenn Youngkin would “unleash COVID” as governor because he doesn’t support a mandate. A new ad from McAuliffe’s campaign even features a trauma critical care surgeon who says Youngkin would be “dangerous for Virginia.”

Youngkin is pushing back with a pro-vaccine message. His campaign released an ad in which he called on viewers to “join me in getting the vaccine,” and another in which a doctor says Youngkin believes vaccines save lives and encourages everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Youngkin has even asked McAuliffe if he would join him to film a joint public service announcement promoting vaccinations, though no PSA has been filmed.

Recent polling from Pew Research Center shows why politicians are eager to show voters they take the pandemic seriously. A majority of American adults believe that while public health restrictions during the pandemic have hurt businesses and kept them from living their lives the way they want, 62% believe the public health benefits of restrictions have been worth the costs.

This week, the death toll from COVID-19 reached more than 675,000, surpassing that of the 1918 flu pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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