The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP confronts a hijacking by the anti-vaccine crowd — meekly

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on July 13 urged Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as the delta variant continued to spread. (Video: The Washington Post)

The year was 2015, and the keen political watchers at the Associated Press began noticing a counterintuitive trend at the state level. Vaccine skepticism, then generally understood as the territory of coastal liberals, began to find champions on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

“As vaccine skeptics fight laws that would force more parents to inoculate their kids, they are finding unexpected allies in conservative Republicans,” Nicholas Riccardi wrote. Riccardi pointed to Democratic-controlled states like California and Washington moving to make it more difficult to avoid vaccinations for children, amid measles outbreaks. But suddenly Republicans in states like Colorado, Maine and Minnesota were on the other side of the debate.

By then, the writing was beginning to appear on the wall when it came to the GOP overtaking the Democratic Party as the party of vaccine skepticism. But that shift arguably reached its zenith this week, with Tennessee enacting new restrictions on its health department communicating about vaccines.

Increasingly, Republicans must confront whether this is a shift they are comfortable with, and whether it’s good for the party. Because it’s happening — with little real resistance.

The Tennessee example is a crucial one, because it goes further than just encouraging children to get the coronavirus vaccines. There are valid debates about whether those vaccines should be mandatory and whether parents should get the vaccine for their children, given they don’t suffer nearly as much from the virus’s impact (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they should).

But Tennessee went significantly further than that. It prohibited its health department from not just encouraging children to get the coronavirus vaccines, but also sharing any information about the vaccines. What’s more, the state is preventing it from giving children who have received one vaccine dose reminders about second shots, and also from communicating with them about vaccines more generally. This isn’t just about the coronavirus vaccine, but rather vaccines that include measles, HPV and others.

In recent months, questions have been asked about whether the GOP’s resistance to the coronavirus vaccines would soon spread to other vaccines. That is seemingly being answered in real time.

And indications are the trend will quite possibly continue.

For one, polling has indeed shown Republicans not just being skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine — which remains authorized on an emergency basis — but also shifting for years toward opposing vaccine mandates and more general vaccine skepticism.

Gallup in 2001 asked parents whether they thought it was important for their children to get vaccinated, and it was an overwhelming consensus issue across the aisle. Both 93 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of Democrats said it was at least “very important.”

By 2015, as debunked links between vaccines and autism proliferated, vaccine skepticism ticked up slightly across the board, with 82 percent of Republicans saying vaccinations were “very important,” compared to 88 percent of Democrats.

By 2019, though, the partisan gap began to yawn. The GOP’s belief that vaccines were “very important” dropped to 79 percent, while Democrats stood at 92 percent.

To be clear, whatever one thinks about vaccine mandates and the right to refuse certain vaccines — something on which Republicans might logically be more in favor of personal choice — these numbers point to doubts about the vaccines themselves.

Other polling has also pointed to Republicans having a more generalized skepticism of vaccines than Democrats. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month showed 93 percent of Democrats either had gotten or planned to get the coronavirus vaccines, compared to just 49 percent of Republicans. And many Republicans say this isn’t coronavirus vaccine-specific; polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows about 1 in 8 Republicans say they are refusing the vaccine because they “don’t trust vaccines, in general.” So there are more Republicans who say they don’t trust vaccines, period, than Democrats who are forgoing the coronavirus vaccine for any reason.

How did we get to this point? A big reason is that Republicans have taken a largely hands-off approach to the vaccine skeptics in their midst — and in some cases proactively given them a platform.

Last month, we recapped the growing number of anti-vaccine activists whom state legislative Republicans had invited to testify in states across the country. This came to a head when one anti-vaccine doctor suggested in an Ohio hearing that the coronavirus vaccine was magnetizing people to the point where they could stick keys, forks and spoons to the vertical surfaces of their bodies.

But she was hardly alone. Michigan Republicans invited Naomi Wolf, who has been suspended from Twitter for her bizarre anti-vaccine theories. They also invited a QAnon conspiracy theorist to weigh in. Louisiana Republicans invited someone who spouted vaccine conspiracy theories. U.S. Senate Republicans invited a less-extreme vaccine skeptic.

That last one came courtesy of the then-chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Johnson has repeatedly echoed the dubious claims of Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others questioning the safety of the vaccines.

To this point, though, both Carlson and Johnson, as well as those state-level Republicans, have gotten a mostly free ride from their GOP allies.

Shortly before the Tennessee news broke Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) encouraged vaccines at a news conference. But when McConnell said he was perplexed by the inability to get more Americans vaccinated, he got pushback.

“Respectfully, though, it isn’t all that perplexing,” a reporter said. “There are Republicans who are casting doubt on the vaccine.” The questioner mentioned Johnson specifically.

McConnell effectively waved it off: “I’ve already answered the question about how I feel about this. I can only speak for myself, and I just did a few minutes ago.”

Before that exchange, Blunt, whose state is dealing with a significant outbreak of the delta variant in its less-vaccinated areas, also made a strong case for vaccinations. But he too suggested he couldn’t do much more than that: “I’m not for mandatory vaccinations, but I’m certainly doing everything I can to encourage voluntary vaccination.”

The situation carries huge parallels to many others in the Trump era. There is a small but very passionate and active portion of the party pushing a more extreme view of things. Party leaders are saying something quite different, but largely declining to directly rebuke that wing.

Those party leaders, though, have seen how that hands-off approach can lead to extremism infecting their party, most notably and most recently when it comes to the idea that the election was stolen. The Tennessee move should probably lead them to ask themselves whether they’re comfortable with the same thing happening with the vaccine-skeptic movement, allowing it to hijack their party over their mild objections.