Republican legislators in multiple presidential battleground states are amping up pressure on Democratic governors to reopen their economies — clashes that are certain to shape the views of a critical slice of the electorate in November.
Democratic officials across Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota are resisting overtures to roll back public health closures: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers just extended his state’s stay-at-home order despite legal threats from Republicans, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced he will veto a GOP bill to expand which businesses are deemed too important to shutter.
The showdowns between emboldened Republican officials and Democratic governors are emerging as an undercard to the fall contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The GOP drumbeat comes as Democrats are seizing on Trump’s uneven handling of the virus to win the presidency and flip several statehouses.
Trump himself is stoking the angst on the right, urging in a Friday tweet to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. Those are among the states where protests of stay-at-home orders issued by Democrats are unfolding. But at the state level, the partisan standoffs are complicated by a tangle of Democratic directives that Republican lawmakers have struggled to unwind.
The Republican pushes defy warnings from public health officials against moving too hastily toward business as usual. Democrats view the Republican agitating as a ploy to stoke Trump’s base while setting up Biden and down-ballot Democrats as responsible for spiraling unemployment and economic duress.
“The Republican Party is trying to put corporate profits above public health,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Leanne Krueger, who leads the campaign arm for state House Democrats. “And people will die.”
The standoffs feature some of the same friction as the clashes between Trump and Democratic leaders. Trump has squabbled with governors while leaning on a new council of corporate executives as he pushes to reopen the economy. On Thursday, he moved to put the onus on governors to clear the way for sooner-than-expected openings. That’s a central piece of the efforts by the GOP legislators.
In interviews, several Republican legislators told POLITICO the predictive models showing escalating cases and deaths have been overly aggressive in their states. They say they’ve been inundated with pleas from constituents to give them more flexibility to operate, along with clearer guidelines and plans to dig out of the quarantine.
Many of the Republicans pushed back on Democratic charges that they’re merely serving the interests of Trump. They stressed that they want to be deferential to Democratic governors. But they also said they’re frustrated by the lack of long-term planning around reopening as well as kinks in their states’ regulations concerning which businesses are allowed to open.
Democratic governors said they’re trying to fill the federal leadership void by banding together regionally to look at safe ways to reopen. Midwestern leaders indicated in a recent letter they’ll base the timing of their decisions on several factors: Control of new infections and hospitalizations, more testing, ample medical capacity to handle a resurgence and the standardization of social distancing guidelines for workplaces.
Coronavirus-era tussles are spilling into other Republican-controlled Midwestern states led by Democratic governors. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last weekend that Republican lawmakers exceeded their authority when a panel tried to revoke Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order limiting church gatherings to help curb spread of the disease.
In the battleground states, the fights over reopening could have major implications for the states and their compositions come fall. Democrats are targeting nine seats in the Pennsylvania House and the party needs four to tie in the state Senate, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman would serve as the tie-breaking vote.
The state House in Michigan has been under Republican control for the past decade, but Democrats are four seats away from flipping the chamber. In the Michigan state Senate, Democrats need three to tie and four to flip the upper chamber.
Minnesota is the last state in the country with a divided Legislature: Democrats won a majority in the state House two years ago and need just two seats to win the Senate.
So far, at least, voters have given governors the benefit of the doubt on how to manage the pandemic in their states, said Ben Golnik, a Republican strategist in Minnesota and former executive director of the state House Republicans caucus. Both parties have pointed to surveys showing big spikes in job-approval figures for governors working on the front lines of the virus.
But as the shutdown drags on, governors increasingly are on the spot. In Pennsylvania, the GOP-run Legislature sent Wolf legislation to allow several categories of businesses to reopen barely a month after he ordered them closed.
The Michigan Senate Republican caucus has released a plan to reopen the state in phases. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has contend it’s his party’s responsibility to propose a framework for Michiganders to “live life in the presence of Covid-19, safely.” Republican lawmakers lent their support to a protest this week that called on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a prospect to become Biden’s running mate — to dial back her stay-at-home order.
Democrat Jim Ananich, the Senate minority leader, called the protest a “farce” and noted that Republicans had just introduced the resolution that gave Whitmer emergency powers.
“Every order so far — whether they’ve liked every aspect — they have seen and had plenty of time to digest,” Ananich said of Whitmer’s actions. “You’d think from the last week the governor is now some emperor back in Rome.”
Republican legislators in Wisconsin have grown so impatient with Evers’ decision to close schools for the rest of the year and extend stay-at-home orders until late May that they are targeting state health officials and threatening curbs on the Democratic governor’s power. They’ve branded Evers a “tyrant" and are planning a rally at Wisconsin’s state Capitol next week.
And in Minnesota, GOP legislators are amping up pressure on Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who has repeatedly called for a large expansion of testing before reopening more segments of the economy.
Minnesota state Sen. Scott Jensen, a doctor, said Walz should act now to reopen businesses while continuing social distancing and isolating vulnerable older people and those with pre-existing conditions. Jensen said there have been increased suicides and calls to abuse lines, an underappreciated toll of the crisis.
A group of Minnesota House Republicans, meanwhile, proposed halting Walz’s emergency powers. But the measure was blocked this week by majority Democrats joined by several Republicans.
Minnesota House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, a Republican, stressed to POLITICO that he doesn’t want to be critical of Walz, but he’s strongly encouraging the governor to safely open businesses as soon as he can. Daudt said models indicate the state has ample medical capacity to handle coronavirus patients while relaxing its stay-at-home order, as long as social distancing measures are maintained.
"If the actual numbers don’t match the high numbers in our model and if people feel the governor took too many precautions there could be some backlash,” he said.
“They want to give the governor the benefit,” he said of Minnesotans. “But we also see a growing concern that this is going to have long-lasting impacts on the state’s economy and to minimize that we need to get back to business open as normal. We need to figure out how we can open businesses."
The largest conflict so far has taken place in Pennsylvania, with images of lawmakers wearing masks as they voted ricocheting across the web. Republicans passed their measure to allow more businesses to reopen even after the state’s Secretary of Health, Rachel Levine, wrote that it would lead to more people getting Covid-19 and undermine the “integrity and effectiveness” of the state’s response.
Republican Rep. Bryan Cutler, the House majority leader, said the bill attempts to help small businesses and correct an exemption process in which some companies have been allowed to operate while their competitors were ordered to remain closed.
“For me it’s really simple,” Cutler said. “It’s about getting people who want to safely go back to work.
Nationally, more than 661,000 Americans have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 33,049 have died. Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order lasts through the end of April.
“The governor did the only thing he could do,” Krueger, the Democratic state representative, said of Wolf’s veto announcement. “It is just too soon.”