An anti-mask protestor holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest on July 18, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio.
An anti-mask protestor holds up a sign in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest on July 18, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Far-Right Anti-Mask Movement Is Coming For Republican Governors

Multiple GOP governors are facing primary challenges over actions they took during the pandemic—even those who didn’t do much to stop its spread.
June 10, 2021, 4:27pm

When COVID hit, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine sprang into action. He moved to shut down large events weeks before other governors, scrambled to delay Ohio’s primary, and opted for a statewide mask mandate.

All that effort to stop the spread enraged the right. After multiple moves by state legislators to reverse his decisions, DeWine is now facing a potentially serious primary challenge.

Former Ohio congressman Jim Renacci, a close ally of former President Trump, announced Wednesday that he’d challenge DeWine, hammering him for backing “fear over freedom” and blaming the governor for costing Ohio jobs with his COVID response.

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“COVID hits, and Mike DeWine shuts down the state, closes businesses, sets curfews, and we lose 400,000 jobs. Suicide and depression are up. Even in 2021, while other states are coming out of it, Ohio still seems to be falling behind,” Renacci told VICE News on Tuesday, shortly before making his campaign official. “COVID clearly shows that he is not able to lead our state in the direction it needs to be led.” 

DeWine isn’t the only Republican governor facing a primary headache over COVID: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott already has one primary challenger, and former Texas Republican Party chair Allen West may join the race soon. Idaho Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is already running against Gov. Brad Little. Even in deep-blue Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is likely to face a primary from a former state lawmaker angry about his COVID restrictions.

The subset of Republicans furious that their state governments issued edicts to try to save lives during a global pandemic are now gunning for their own leaders, even if they’re in the same party. And the rage of the past year’s anti-lockdown protests could spill into the midterms, further fueling tensions within the GOP and possibly giving Democrats a better chance in some gubernatorial races.

Republicans clearly took the coronavirus less seriously than Democrats did: Polls consistently found that a majority of Republicans didn’t see the coronavirus as a major threat to the health of the U.S. population, and majorities opposed mask mandates and other COVID restrictions. And the people who vote in GOP primaries tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole.

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“Masks have become so politicized over the past year that I don’t think it’s surprising this has become a rallying cry for the far-right base,” said Jessica Taylor, an expert on governors’ races at the Cook Political Report.

The subset of Republicans furious that their state governments issued edicts to try to save lives during a global pandemic are now gunning for their own leaders, even if they’re in the same party.

DeWine was one of the first governors of either party to take the pandemic seriously. His move on March 3 last year to ban spectators from the Arnold Classic (a bodybuilding competition named after Schwarzenegger that draws a quarter-million people) made it the first major event in the country that faced COVID restrictions. Weeks later, he postponed Ohio’s presidential primaries. And while he wasn’t as quick as some other governors to decree an indoor mask mandate, he put one in place last July and didn’t drop it until after the Centers for Disease Control shifted its national guidance.

DeWine’s early handling of the pandemic was heralded as a “national guide” by the Washington Post and drew plaudits from across the aisle, with President Biden saying he did a “heck of a job” and Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown recently praised his “steady hand.” His overall poll numbers saw a big jump.

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But each step DeWine took made a significant chunk of the Republican base more livid.

Conservative state legislators, spurred on by hard-line activists, drove DeWine’s health director, Amy Acton, to quit her job. They passed bills to restrict DeWine’s emergency powers as an executive—and overrode DeWine’s veto. They’ve tried to end the “Vax-a-Million” raffle he instituted to drive more vaccinations with several weekly drawings of $1 million.

DeWine’s team acknowledges some right-wing rage, but they argue that the governor’s quick actions at the beginning of the pandemic meant he was able to loosen Ohio’s restrictions faster than many other state as a result. They pointed out that Ohio never closed church services, unlike some other states, never put a hard-and-fast capacity limit on businesses so long as they could keep patrons spaced six feet apart, and they said DeWine had worked closely with businesses to help balance economic and health concerns.

“While certainly there are individuals frustrated with certain things like the mask mandate, Ohio took a very moderate approach that was very much the Ohio way,” DeWine gubernatorial spokesman Dan Tierney told VICE News. “Ohioans respect that. They understand why those things were in place.”

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Remember the lockdown 

DeWine’s relatively assertive approach to COVID strongly contrasts with Gov. Abbott’s approach in Texas, but Abbott is still facing fury from his base.

He was once the darling of the Texas far-right, even as he maintained a stronger standing with the state’s large populations of Hispanic and moderate suburban voters than some of Texas’ more hard-line GOP figures. But COVID changed that. 

After a brief lockdown in March 2020, Abbott moved swiftly in April to reopen bars, restaurants, and most other businesses, albeit with limited capacity. He refused to support mail voting in the state, making Texas one of just a few states that didn’t expand the process to avoid crowds.

But some conservatives were furious he’d done anything at all, and ever since last summer he’s been scrambling to get right with the base. 

Abbott quickly backtracked after briefly closing churches, and was attacked from the right when he added a week of in-person early voting to try to space out voters and avoid crowds. Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate but lifted it in early March 2021, months before the state’s vaccination rate got high enough to start curtailing infection rates. This week, he took a victory lap for signing a law banning businesses from asking for evidence of vaccines from their customers.

Some conservatives were furious he’d done anything at all, and ever since last summer he’s been scrambling to get right with the base.

“Texas is open one hundred percent, and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want, without limits,” Abbott said. “Vaccine passports are now prohibited in the Lone Star State.”

Abbott is already facing a primary challenge from Don Huffines, a former state senator and wealthy real estate developer who’s expected to drop millions of dollars of his own money on the race.

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And Huffines isn’t his only threat: Lightning rod former congressman Allen West just resigned as chairman of the Texas Republican Party, and is considering joining the field.

Both Huffines and West have repeatedly blasted Abbott for his COVID restrictions — the pair both attended a protest outside the governor’s mansion last fall. West has attacked Abbott for the statewide mask mandate and for limiting capacity at bars and restaurants.

Huffines’ campaign attacks so far have focused more on border security and taxes, but he’s made clear that he’ll go after Abbott for his COVID restrictions as well:

“It’s very notable that Greg Abbott is currently trying to focus on the positive aspect on him canceling his shutdown policies and not the success of those policies,” Texas Republican strategist Luke Macias, who is backing Huffines, told VICE News. “The governor single-handedly put 3 million people on the unemployment lines within a week of him declaring a slew of business unessential. Those were actions people never expected to see from a red-state governor.”

West has been even more aggressive. Last July at the state Republican convention, he compared resistance to Abbott’s COVID restrictions to Texas’ war for independence.

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“Today there’s a new battleground, there’s a new battlefield, and it’s really not too much different from what they faced—the despotism, the tyranny that we see in the great state of Texas, where we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential, who is not essential,” he said.

Normally, a multi-candidate race could divide the opposition, but Texas has primary runoffs, meaning if the pair can hold Abbott below 50 percent of the vote, he’ll have to contend with them longer-term.

The wilder, wilder West

It’s notable that Abbott has faced such fury from the right for half-measures that didn’t go nearly as far as other states. But it’s nothing compared to Idaho.

Republican Gov. Brad Little put in barely any restrictions at all. The state was one of just 11 that never had an indoor mask mandate. There haven’t been any restrictions on groups smaller than 50 people since February and indoor school athletic events could have spectators at 40% capacity since January, even though the state hadn’t met the targets Little set to reach either of those goals. Schools remained in person for much of last year in most of the state. 

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But even those restrictions have rankled people. Little spent much of the past year sparring with hard-line members of the state Legislature and was eventually pressured into signing legislation that limited his emergency powers.

Far-right Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin accused him of using “draconian tactics” to battle the virus that hurt business. When Little ordered bars to stay closed until mid-June last year, McGeachin defied him and reopened her family’s Idaho Falls bar. She later appeared in a video from the libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation that said the pandemic “may or may not be occurring.”

A few weeks ago, she pulled one of the more brazen political stunts in recent memory: While Little was out of town for a Republican Governors Association conference, McGeachin claimed her authority as acting governor to issue an executive order banning all mask mandates in the state, including prohibitions on school mask mandates.

Memories fade

Even with all these challenges, the right-wing COVID fury may fade as the pandemic recedes in the U.S. 

“There is definitely an undercurrent of frustration from Republican primary voters here over COVID, just like there is everywhere, and the governor has taken heat over mask-wearing and school [closures],” Idaho Republican strategist Todd Cranney told VICE News. “I’ve had multiple friends express frustration to me. But that’s the frustration of the moment—and the moment is passing.”

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It’s too early to tell how much trouble any of these governors are in—and whether COVID will remain top-of-mind next year when these governors will actually face the voters. 

There’s been scant public polling of any of their approval ratings in recent months, and primary contests are notoriously hard to predict. But all three could well survive, and GOP strategists in all four states told VICE News that they’re skeptical that the opponents gearing up for runs are that serious as candidates.

If Baker decides to run, his only real threat is if the GOP changes its nomination rules to make it harder for him to qualify for the primary ballot by increasing the threshold of support he’d need from party activists at a convention—a possibility given how much hostility Massachusetts’ fringe GOP state party chairman has for Baker, but not a likelihood.

Abbott seems to have done everything he can to get right with Texas GOP activists after a rocky year where he scrambled between COVID lockdowns and brash reopenings. 

Republican strategists say his numbers did take a dip with Republicans in private polling last summer and fall but have since recovered, and he has strong popularity marks now. Abbott also has a powerful fundraising network in Texas, key assets in one of the most expensive states in the country to campaign in. And a recent endorsement from ex-President Trump further shored up his right flank.

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DeWine has never been popular with large segments of the Ohio GOP base—he’s a country club Republican who has in the past infuriated the base by backing gun control and other issues, and in his long political career has often had to fend off right-wing challenges. Trump has already threatened to oppose DeWine’s election, and Renacci is working with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale on this campaign. But Trump is known to spurn “losers” and Renacci was the only GOP candidate to lose statewide in 2018, so it’s not a lock that he’ll get the former president’s endorsement this time.

Little hasn’t committed to running for reelection in Idaho, though most expect he’ll seek a second term. He’s not universally beloved in his party—he won the nomination with just 37 percent of the primary vote in a three-way contest four years ago. But even in deeply libertarian-conservative Idaho, a state where politicians who would be on the fringe in other states have won a number of past elections, McGeachin may be a bridge too far. She’s repeatedly flirted with militia groups, and on Wednesday The Guardian reported on video of her accepting a hearty endorsement from a well-known militia leader who thanked her for promising to be a “friend” to the movement.

Ultimately, national Republican strategists don’t seem too concerned about the rightwing challenges.

“Voters have short memories.”

“Republican governors have done a tremendous job helping their states navigate a once-in-a-generation crisis and as such we’re seeing those states respond better and recover quicker than Democrat states across the country,” Republican Governors Association spokesman Jesse Hunt told VICE News. “Their constituents appreciate what they’ve been able to accomplish on behalf of the state, and it’s that connection that will help these governors remain in office for another four years.”

And states across the country are relaxing restrictions, COVID rates have plunged, and people’s lives are beginning to return to normal even in places that had stricter lockdowns. 

“Voters have short memories,” said Taylor.

But the candidates targeting GOP governors are going to do everything they can to keep the base angry.

“I’m pretty sure the 40 percent of restaurants and bars that may never come back will never forget this,” Renacci told VICE News.