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Many parents are angry over COVID policies. They could be key to GOP 2022 gains

Kindergarteners wear masks while listening to their teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif., on Jan. 12. Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California's school mask mandate on Feb. 14 even as other Democratic governors around the country dropped them.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
Kindergarteners wear masks while listening to their teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif., on Jan. 12. Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California's school mask mandate on Feb. 14 even as other Democratic governors around the country dropped them.

President Biden told the country on Tuesday it was safe to go back to their normal lives in his State of the Union address, saying shutdowns of schools and business are no longer necessary because of widely available vaccines, tests and new treatments.

"I know you're tired, frustrated and exhausted," Biden empathized.

For suburban Connecticut moms like Amelia Fogarty and Caroline Montero, it's too little, too late. In recent months both women have become more engaged in politics than at any other point in their lives, pushing back against local mask mandates — primarily supported by Democratic elected officials — that until recently required their children to wear masks at school.

Born and raised a Democrat, Fogarty recently switched parties and plans to vote Republican this November over this issue. It's cost her friendships and strained some family ties.

"It's been really sad and very isolating, but I have stuck to my guns because I just, I feel very strongly in my heart that I know that this is not right," she said.

Montero — a self-described independent, moderate and occasional voter — is hyper-engaged in politics for the first time in her life.

"I'm absolutely going to be more involved in voting in midterms and any other election," she said. "It opened my eyes to how important it is to have the right people in the right seat or the people you want in the right seat."

The 'mask choice' movement includes parents deciding what's best for their kids

They are part of the "mask choice" movement that would leave it up to parents to decide if their kids should wear a mask. That view went against the Centers for Disease Control for most of the past two years. Just last week, the CDC rolled back longstanding guidelines calling for universal masking in schools for children age 2 and older.

When they tried to talk to their local elected officials about possibly easing the mandate — armed with CDC data on the low risk COVID presents to children — they felt ignored by Democrats.

"Only the Republicans met with me," Montero said.

"I just feel like they are not listening to their constituents in any way and I'm really frustrated and I'm just done with the party to be honest," Fogarty said.

Republicans at the highest levels see a political opportunity to appeal to similarly angry parents — particularly white suburban parents. They are more likely than non-white parents to support ending mask mandates, according to public opinion polls. A majority of parents overall still support universal masking, according to a February CBS News poll. But 20% of liberals and over one-third of moderates in the same poll said it should be optional.

Republicans have advocated more aggressively than Democrats to roll back COVID-related mandates, if they ever supported them at all.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently declared the GOP the "Party of Parents" on the Senate floor.

"Republicans at the local, state and federal level are standing with the parents. We are going to keep fighting against the disruptions to family life caused by rules and mandates that are not based in science," he said.

In her GOP response to Biden's State of the Union address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also included an overture to parents. "Republicans believe that parents matter. It was true before the pandemic and has never been more important to say out loud: Parents matter."

One GOP strategist predicts the issue will lead to a 'red tsunami' in November

Veteran Republican strategist Liesl Hickey says mask mandates are just one part of why angry parents will be a critical voting bloc in what she believes will be a "red tsunami" come November.

"There is a horrific child mental health crisis, there is severe learning loss. And there's this just general disruption of children's precious childhood," she said. "And parents are looking for someone to hold accountable. I mean, parents have a long memory when it comes to how their children have been treated."

Lifelong Democrat Justin Spiro doesn't have kids but he works with them as a social worker at a New York City high school. He says the mask mandate took a toll on his students. He was furious when Democrats in the New York state Senate recently blocked a Republican bill to roll it back. He has felt alienated from the party over it.

"Maybe there's no politician for me. Maybe I need to write someone in," he said. "I guess if there was a more centrist candidate or party that might be the the way for me to go."

Top Democrats see the warning signs.

New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is running House Democrats' campaign operation. On MSNBC, he cheered Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul's recent decision to end mask mandates for New York businesses.

"We as Democrats should not be, out of some sense of correctness, falling in love with mandates when they aren't necessary," he said. "We should get rid of them as quickly as we responsibly can."

Hochul then lifted New York's school mask mandate this week.

With the pandemic entering its third year, parents like Debbie are exhausted by it all. She's a mom of two and lives in suburban Seattle. She asked NPR not to use her last name so she could speak candidly about her political views. Her family has diligently followed COVID protocols, like wearing masks, throughout the pandemic.

"It's like you either made the sacrifices and other people didn't, or you didn't make the sacrifices and other people are expecting you to, and everyone is just tired of feeling like they're on the wrong side of something," she said.

A lifelong Democrat, Debbie told NPR she considers herself an independent now.

"That doesn't mean I've become more conservative. What that means is I am so appalled at how the Democrats are performing. I don't think I can even be a part of it anymore," she said.

Debbie doesn't believe many parents like her will vote Republican this year. She believes it's more likely they just won't vote. Either way, that's good news to Republicans.

Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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