Bill McSwain, the former prosecutor turned potential gubernatorial candidate, went after the “radical left” for “ignoring science by forcing kids to wear masks at school.”
Facebook ads paid for by Jeff Bartos’ Senate campaign feature an image meant to mock President Joe Biden’s call for a grassroots vaccine education campaign and urge supporters to “say NO to door-to-door Joe!”
And gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta blasted Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for the legislature to mandate masks in schools, saying, “Parents should decide what is best for their children — not power hungry politicians.”
As governments, universities, and private employers around the country impose new masking and vaccine requirements to contain the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, Pennsylvania Republicans eyeing statewide office are pushing back against what they call overreach.
Much of their messaging focuses on the potential negative impact the restrictions may have on small businesses, as well as perceived infringements on personal liberty.
The Republican nominees for governor in New Jersey and Virginia this year are also campaigning against mask mandates, and GOP governors in Texas and Florida have sought to preempt local governments from imposing their own restrictions.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic governor is term-limited and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking reelection. Both statewide races next year are expected to be highly competitive.
The early campaigning comes amid renewed debate over masking. Parents have been packing school board meetings in the Philadelphia region and across the country as the delta variant has sparked a surge in cases and local officials debate whether to require students and staff to wear face coverings.
Confirmed coronavirus cases have jumped 62% in the last two weeks in Pennsylvania, according to data compiled by the New York Times, and hospitalizations — primarily among unvaccinated people — are up 70%.
The number of shots administered to Pennsylvania residents in August has surpassed the July total, according to an Inquirer analysis. Scientific evidence shows the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing serious illness from a disease that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
A national USA Today-Ipsos survey last week found 66% of adults support state and local government mask requirements, and 62% support employers requiring workers to get shots. And 69% of adults say school districts should be able to require students and staff to wear a mask, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll this month.
Support for such restrictions is softer among Republicans, a majority of whom say states should be able to prohibit local governments from mandating masks, according to the Axios poll.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status. Some experts have questioned the agency’s rationale, pointing to a CDC study in May that found requiring masks among students in school didn’t make a meaningful difference in transmission of the virus.
Wolf, who is requiring state employees who work in health care and congregate settings to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, said earlier this month he wouldn’t mandate masks in schools. But last week the governor called on the GOP-controlled legislature to pass a bill requiring such action. Republicans said that decision was best left to individual districts.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), a top ally of former President Donald Trump and a likely contender for governor, has promoted viral videos of people lashing out at government officials over new mandates, including one of a woman who told a school board her kids won’t wear masks because “their brain needs oxygen to grow.” (Researchers have said there is no evidence to support the idea that masks cause dangerous oxygen deprivation.)
Mastriano and some other Republicans also oppose vaccine mandates.
Mastriano voted for legislation — later vetoed by Wolf — that would have banned a wide range of public and private entities from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Mastriano has spread an array of misinformation about the vaccines, including a video on Facebook that falsely says they cause autism and kill children.
McSwain, the former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia who’s now considering a run for governor, and Bartos, a Lower Merion real estate developer, both launched fund-raising campaigns that seized on Biden’s push to boost vaccination rates by having volunteers and community leaders go door-knocking to educate people about the shots.
“We need to go to community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oftentimes, door-to-door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to” unvaccinated people, Biden said last month.
Not long after, McSwain’s political committee, Freedom PA, blasted out a text message that read: “Joe Biden’s America: Go door to door & force you to get a vaccine. What will you do if the liberal mob knocks your door down?”
The message directed recipients to the PAC’s fund-raising page on the digital platform WinRed.
White House and public health officials say no one is being compelled to get the vaccine at their door. And the grassroots efforts were already underway in Philadelphia and across the country. In the Philadelphia region, canvassers and public health workers say in-person outreach has helped reach low-income and nonwhite communities by answering people’s questions and dispelling misinformation.
Still, McSwain has painted the issue as one of personal liberty.
“If you want to get a vaccine, it’s available, it’s free, people can do it. Personally, I’ve gotten vaccinated,” McSwain said this month on The Dom Giordano Program on 1210 WPHT. “But that doesn’t mean that you have to jam that decision down everybody else’s throats. People have to make their own risk calculation about what’s best for them and for their families.”
Bartos paid for Facebook ads showing an image of Biden standing outside what looks like a front door, as seen from the perspective of a person peering through the peephole. “Join Jeff Bartos and Tell Joe to Go Away,” says one ad, which links to a fund-raising page.
Bartos said he is vaccinated, calling it “the right decision for me and my family.”
“When asked, I always recommend people get vaccinated,” he said in a statement. “That said, we have to trust people to do what’s best for themselves and their families — and it is certainly not the job of the federal government to mandate health decisions.”
Senate candidate Sean Parnell, an Army veteran who lives outside Pittsburgh, said he also opposes vaccine and mask requirements.
“Our children have a right to breathe the free air,” he told the interviewer Megyn Kelly this month.
On the whole, Democrats nationally and in Pennsylvania have been more in support of restrictions designed to curb the spread of COVID, meaning the issue could become a flash point in next year’s general election. But the lines of division are still evolving.
Even Val Arkoosh — the chairwoman of Montgomery County’s board of commissioners, a candidate for the open Senate seat and a physician — was content to encourage but not mandate mask-wearing by businesses in her county.
“We all just need to pull together here,” she said last week, “with a common cause of wanting to keep everybody alive, keep our hospitals safe, not further overburden everyone working in our health-care systems, and make sure that our kids can get back to school in-person.”