COVID quickens GOP populism tilt from old pro-business brand

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency on Feb. 26, 2021, in Orlando, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
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Mark Niquette Bloomberg News (TNS)

The conflicts between businesses and Republican leaders like Texas Governor Greg Abbott over vaccine mandates highlights the GOP’s shift from a pro-business, anti-regulatory party to one that answers to a populist base.

Similar disputes are playing out nationally as anti-vaccine politics have run into strategies by companies to operate their businesses safely and as they see fit. Abbott’s executive order issued Monday barring any entity, including an employer, from requiring a coronavirus vaccination puts him squarely in opposition to the plans of many Texas businesses. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday proposed a law to shield workers from dismissal for not getting COVID-19 vaccines.

Abbott’s order puts companies in a bind between it and President Joe Biden’s directive for companies with 100 or more employees to require workers be vaccinated. Abbott was once considered the champion of corporate interests while DeSantis is leading in some GOP polls for the 2024 presidential election.

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Business groups and the companies they represent say vaccines and other mitigation measures are crucial to beating the pandemic and spurring the economic recovery, a view Biden encourages. But Republican politicians responding to voters advocating populist positions championed by former President Donald Trump have made minimizing the virus an act of personal freedom.

That approach may cost some GOP candidates the corporate support they once could rely on. Some states’ chambers of commerce, including in Ohio and Oklahoma, are considering using their political action committees to support pro-business Democrats and oppose what they consider to be “anti-business Republicans.”

“If they’re anti-business, they should be worried that we’re going to put a target on their back,” said Steve Stivers, president and chief executive of the Ohio Chamber and a former Republican member of Congress.

The moves to impose prohibitions on businesses come as many large companies, including Walmart Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc., the Walt Disney Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have started to require the vaccine. Some, like McDonald’s Corp., have mandated inoculations for office workers but not for front-line employees. United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby has said that more than 98% of the airline’s U.S.-based employees have been vaccinated.

Texas-based American Airlines Group Inc., the biggest U.S. airline, and No. 4 Southwest Airlines Co. said on Tuesday they would defy Abbott’s order and instead follow Biden’s requirements.

Republican officials such as Abbott and DeSantis have defended prohibitions on businesses on grounds that no one should be forced to get the vaccine or wear a mask. DeSantis on Tuesday also said that he would contest federal vaccine mandates for large private-sector businesses.

He has backed issuing fines to companies that require patrons to show proof of vaccination, saying at a news conference inPensacola last month that his job is “not to protect corporate freedom,” a position the GOP once embraced.

The governor isn’t concerned about losing business support because government must protect individual rights and allow people to make their own medical decisions, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said.

“Being pro-business does not mean enabling corporate policies that violate individual rights,” Pushaw said.

Still, executives like United’s Kirby and business groups such as the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s chamber of commerce, see employer-driven mandates as the way to defeat the pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans.

“Vaccinations are our path out of the pandemic, and the partnership remains focused on supporting steps that lead to improving the rate of vaccination in our community,” Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president and chief executive said in a statement.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday assailed the moves by Abbott and DeSantis, saying they’re “putting politics ahead of public health” and “every leader should be focused on supporting efforts to save lives and end the pandemic.”

Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said that some Texans are worried about losing their jobs if they refuse a vaccine mandate, and Biden’s requirement leaves employers with a choice of violating federal regulations or losing workers, The governor’s order “will help protect Texans from having to make that choice,” Eze said in a statement.

In Ohio, House Republicans on Wednesday paused hearings for lack of a consensus on a bill to prohibit businesses from requiring vaccines that aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The bill would otherwise allow mandates — with exemptions including “reasons of conscience.” It was an attempted compromise after business groups opposed an earlier bill to prohibit mandates. The Ohio chamber still opposes it as a “kinder and gentler” way of taking authority away from business owners, Stivers said.

Stivers, who resigned from Congress in May to take over the Ohio chamber, is a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Now, he’s ramping up fundraising for the chamber’s political action committee.

In Oklahoma, the State Chamber and other business interests also might look to oppose Republican lawmakers who are championing a measure to prohibit employers from requiring vaccines when the state legislature returns in February, President and Chief Executive Chad Warmington said.

“It could cause them to take a strong look at the people that are supporting this and say, ‘Hey, are they really for, you know, businesses in the state? Are they really promoters of free enterprise? Do they really believe in the principles that we thought that they did?”’ Warmington said.

Republican politicians have embraced opposition to vaccine and mask mandates as outrage against them grew on the right, reflecting the party’s changing voter base.

A Gallup poll released Sept. 3 found that 56% of Americans favor requiring proof of vaccination to go to an office or work site. But that support plunges among Republicans to only 24%, compared to 88% of Democrats and 43% of independents. Republicans say it should be a matter of personal choice.

Polls also show that Republicans are not as concerned about business interests as they once were.

Gallup found a sharp drop in the percentage of Republicans who are satisfied with the size and influence of major corporations, falling to a record-low 31% in January from 57% a year earlier. Satisfaction with big business among Democrats remained essentially unchanged at about 25%, the surveys found.

While businesses are still more aligned with the GOP than Democrats on issues such as taxation, the more that American party politics is defined by the culture wars, the more it puts businesses — especially big business — in conflict with traditional Republican partisan allies, said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor who has studied and written about political polarization.

“The problem is really the replacement of the traditional business-friendly leadership of the Republican Party with a much more culturally motivated leadership,” Hopkins said.

Lydia Saad, Gallup’s director of U.S. social research, said GOP satisfaction with corporations was higher when Trump took office in 2017 because he was associated with business. But Republican approval fell as he clashed with businesses over social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, accusations of “censorship” by major technology companies and the response to the coronavirus pandemic, Saad said.

Businesses oppose the states telling them they can’t require employee vaccinations or other coronavirus mitigation measures, just as they object to Biden requiring that all companies with 100 or more employees must have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly. The businesses say they should be allowed to operate as they see fit.

The threat by some state chambers to oppose Republicans carries some political risk. There was a backlash when the U.S.Chamber endorsed 23 freshmen House Democrats for re-election in 2020 over Republican challengers. The chamber declined to comment.

Stivers said he hasn’t had any complaints from his member businesses for targeting Republicans. Instead, he said, “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it was about time we actually went after folks who were causing problems for our Ohio businesses.”

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