Lockdown Governors Largely Go Unpunished
Whitmer, DeWine cruise to re-election as COVID authoritarianism fades from voters' memories.
Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 brought about the largest expansion in governmental power, and the largest increase in government involvement in the daily lives of American citizens, since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson over a century ago.
The Federal government, for its part, fired thousands of members of the military for refusing COVID vaccines. Federal officials demonized and belittled anyone who resisted vaccines, mask mandates, and lockdown measures—starting at the top with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Health and the public face of the federal pandemic response.
At the state level, officials instituted masking requirements and vaccine mandates, and told workers deemed “non-essential” to stay in their homes. Some states locked down harder than others. Such states did not fare any better regarding infection and death among their residents than the states that took a looser approach and re-opened sooner.
Then the 2022 midterms arrived. As it turned out, with few exceptions, governors who pushed for the harshest, most authoritarian COVID prevention measures fared well with voters.
Arguably, it could be expected that governors of states like New York and California—which over-regulate their citizens’ lives, from housing to occupational licensing to California’s borderline discriminatory ban of menthol cigarettes—would face little backlash from a majority of their big-government-friendly constituents. But many swing-state and red-state governors who locked down their states’ economies also avoided paying the tab at the ballot box in November.
Michigan is a purple state that has alternated between Democrats and Republicans in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections. Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, brought a level of authoritarianism to the Midwestern state that rivaled any of her colleagues on the coasts. If Whitmer’s overbearing policies were not so destructive to the lives and businesses of Michiganders, they would sound comical. The governor forced stores to halt the sale of seeds for gardening. She outlawed the use of motorized boats (while her husband still partook in the activity). Like her fellow governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Whitmer made the fateful decision to send elderly COVID-infected patients back to nursing homes. Still, in November the citizens of Michigan rewarded Ms. Whitmer for her heavy-handed, unscientific actions with a sweeping, 11-point victory over Republican Tudor Dixon. Whitmer over-performed the polling averages, and while some states were only beginning the days- or weeks-long process of counting votes, her race was called early.
Or consider Ohio. For good reason, Ohio has been known as the bellwether state for a century, since the winner of Ohio has gone on to win the presidency every four years since 1896, with exceptions only in 1944, 1960, and 2020, when incumbent President Donald Trump won Ohio before losing the election to now-President Joe Biden. With Trump’s near-10-point margin of victory in the state—and with every statewide office, aside from Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, being held by Republicans—Ohio solidly fits into the “red state” category. Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, broke with many of his GOP colleagues and locked down Ohio’s economy hard in the early days of the pandemic. DeWine issued a stay-at-home order for “non-essential” personnel, shut down schools, and even canceled events like the Arnold Classic on March 3rd 2020, a week before Ohio’s first reported case of COVID-19. Mr. DeWine won re-election on November 8th, defeating Democrat Nan Whaley, former Mayor of Dayton, by a whopping 25.6 points, almost 63% of the vote. With such a massive margin of victory, it is safe to say Governor DeWine gained independent and Democratic voters while retaining Republican support. It seems very few in the Buckeye state were bothered by the governor’s authoritarian streak.
Perhaps voters simply have short memories these days. Perhaps the power of incumbency does the heavy lifting. Perhaps, more alarmingly, the American people may be losing their legendary sense of “rugged individualism” and distaste for centralized power. Time will tell, and surely government will look to put the lockdown band back together—or something similarly tyrannical—sooner rather than later, when another crisis hits our shores. After all, there’s apparently little downside at the ballot box.