The political fight over pandemic policy is playing out in America’s suburbs, where some of the same voters – namely suburban women – who propelled Democrats to big wins in the 2018 and 2020 elections are now breaking ranks ahead of this year’s midterms.
One window into the brewing fight is in northeastern Ohio. A mother in Shaker Heights, who recently participated in a White House call on Covid-19 policy, was eager to give Democrats the benefit of the doubt and help them win elections. But in Cleveland, another mother who recently wrote an attention-grabbing essay on losing faith in the party offered a glimpse at the peril Democrats could face in November.
“If you would’ve told me two years ago that I would be alienated from the Democratic Party, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Angie Schmitt, a Cleveland writer with two young children, said in an interview.
“I hated (Donald) Trump and what the administration was doing,” she said. “But I just don’t think people realized what a big deal closing school for a year was.”
Top Democrats, including President Joe Biden, are attuned to the central role that voters’ reactions to pandemic policies could play in the November midterm elections.
Asked by reporters last week if school closings could be a potent issue to help Republicans win control of Congress, Biden said: “Oh, I think it could be.”
Democrats across the nation have pushed in recent months for in-person schooling even as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus has spread.
The Democratic governor of Illinois and mayor of Chicago went to battle with the city’s teachers’ union this month after the union briefly refused to return to classrooms in person.
Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, in December declared an end to the “medical emergency” of Covid-19. He said he would not issue any mask mandates, urged schools to ramp up testing to limit outbreaks during in-person schooling and said of those who remain unvaccinated and end up hospitalized with Covid-19, “It’s your fault.”
Biden has pointed to his administration’s efforts to fund school testing and other safety measures.
“We’re not going back to shutting down schools. Schools should stay open,” Biden said in a news conference last week.
Too late for Democrats?
Still, some in the party worry that the damage might already be done. And Republicans have sought to capitalize on backlash to pandemic-related safety measures. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the November governor’s race in the increasingly blue state on a message that focused largely on schools, which he vowed would remain open without mask mandates. As soon as he was sworn in earlier this month, he signed an executive order making masks optional in school, for which several school districts are now suing him.
Schmitt of Cleveland, who said she is a registered Democrat, emerged as a voice representing the backlash potentially facing Democrats over what some voters see as overly restrictive pandemic safety policies when The Atlantic published an opinion piece she had authored early this month.
In The Atlantic, Schmitt described a Democratic Party stuck in a moralizing discourse about Covid-19 and hostile to serious conversation about the cost of pandemic-mitigation efforts to children and families.
“Why did I hear so little about that immense social problem and so much shaming of the women who dared to complain about having their kids stuck at home?” she wrote. “All in all, the party that supposedly focused on ‘systemic’ issues was obsessed with demanding personal sacrifice. And the burden fell most heavily on mothers of young children, essential workers, and low-income children.”
Her own views are at times out of step with the consensus of public health experts. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the area’s transmission rates,” adding that “the benefits of mask-wearing are well-established.” Schmitt said she thinks vaccines should be mandated for teachers and staff but not students and that masks should not be required.
“Why is my son, who’s double-vaccinated and already had (Covid-19), masking 40 hours?” she said. “I think Democrats have been way too dogmatic about that.”
“Before, I would not have even considered voting for Republican,” Schmitt said. “Now I’m just looking for these magic words. Who’s the politician that’s going to say, ‘School’s important. We’re keeping schools open.’ ”
In fact, most schools are now open for in-person learning. Democratic officials, including Biden and his administration, have sought to take credit for that.
His White House has also tried to contrast the broad reality of schools being open now with the closures that took place late during the pandemic’s first year under the Trump administration.
“Almost 60% of the schools were closed when we took office. Now 96% of schools are open,” top White House aide Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman, said in a recent livestreamed interview with The Washington Post.
‘We need help’
Still, the politics around the pandemic and schools are complicated, and some Democratic voters remain willing to give the party the benefit of the doubt.
Katie Paris, a mother of two young children from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the founder of the pro-Democratic group Red Wine & Blue, which organizes suburban women, and a group of her organization’s members said Democrats should be more vocal about the party’s support for measures like paid leave and universal child care that would have helped families over the last two years.
“I just watched so many moms suffer,” Paris said. “I think the pandemic just identified: We need help.”
Red Wine & Blue participated in the Biden administration’s first-ever “White House Covid-19 Parent Check Up” last week.
Paris said Democrats should “say that we want to keep our schools open, then make sure that parents and teachers have all the support they need … and not avoid the conversation because it feels like a political landmine.”
“I would hope that this is just the beginning of these conversations,” Paris said. “Most parents aren’t thinking, ‘How many days or months are there until the next election?’ ”