Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during an event to give out bonuses to first responders held at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside on Aug. 10, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has banned local governments from implementing mask requirements even as he pleads for emergency medical help in combating a surge in coronavirus cases from the delta variant. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi L. Noem welcomed hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that last year bore characteristics of a superspreader event for the virus.

And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is waging war on school districts seeking to defy his executive order prohibiting mask mandates for students — while the state sees its rates of hospitalization from covid surge past the worst levels of 2020.

The three Republican governors — all frequently mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2024 — are at the vanguard of GOP resistance to public-health mandates aimed at stemming the tide of the delta variant, which has caused a new spike in coronavirus cases as the country attempts to reopen schools, restaurants and other businesses.

While some GOP politicians toe the line between advocating for vaccines and protecting individual freedoms, legislative barriers to vaccination still exist. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

They and other national and local GOP officials cast their opposition to such measures as an effort to protect personal choice. But some fear the party is on track to make itself the face of the delta variant — endangering fellow Americans while also risking severe political damage in the long term.

“They’re making a political bet on the lives of the people they serve,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele, who has been sharply critical of former president Donald Trump and has formed an exploratory committee for a potential 2022 Maryland gubernatorial bid. “The party leadership has gone so far out on this limb that there they stand with a saw in their hand and they’re sawing it off.”

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DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw defended the governor’s actions, calling him “pro-vaccine but anti-mandate.”

“Protecting individual rights is the cornerstone of conservatism,” Pushaw said in a statement. “If a business or any level of government is infringing upon individual rights . . . then it is indeed conservative for a leader to step in and ensure individual rights are protected.”

In recent days, however, other Republicans, such as Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and pollster Frank Luntz have urged their party’s governors to let schools and localities decide for themselves whether to mandate face masks or vaccines.

“Whenever politicians mess with public health, usually it doesn’t work out well for public health. And ultimately, it doesn’t work out for the politician, because public health suffers, and the American people want public health,” Cassidy, who is also a physician, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

At the same time, Cassidy’s Senate colleagues, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), are sharply denouncing health mandates. Cruz and another Senate Republican, Kevin Cramer (N.D.), on Monday introduced two bills that would ban mask and vaccine mandates.

Polling shows a deep partisan divide on the issues of mask use and vaccination, a factor that may help explain some GOP elected officials’ staunch opposition to mandates.

In a recent Monmouth University poll, 85 percent of Democrats said they support bringing back masking and social distancing guidelines, while just 24 percent of Republicans said the same. The survey was conducted before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its revised guidelines late last month urging face coverings indoors in virus hot spots.

Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to be vaccinated against covid-19, as well. According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released earlier this month, 90 percent of Democrats say they have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, compared with 54 percent of Republicans.

Vaccination mandates for government workers or nursing home staff have overwhelmingly come from Democratic-led states, though in liberal Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) recently joined Virginia in ordering state workers to get vaccinated or face regular virus testing. 

And while many Republican governors turned to statewide mask mandates during last summer’s Sun Belt surge of the virus, this year is different, as some leaders move to block cities, school districts and companies from making their own mask or vaccine requirements.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) recently said he regrets signing a bill barring local mask mandates as the delta variant fuels a surge and open ICU beds in the state dwindle to single digits. But other GOP governors are not swayed.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has stuck by the law he signed earlier this summer forbidding schools from mandating masks or proof of vaccination. In South Carolina, where the state budget prohibits school mask mandates, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) this week accused experts and the media of “unnecessarily alarming people” about the virus and emphasized his belief that parents should choose whether their children wear face coverings.

Gov. Greg Abbott is hoping out-of-state nurses will come wear the masks Texans don’t have to

Abbott has asked hospitals to halt non-emergency medical procedures as thousands of covid-19 patients strain wards already struggling with a shortage of nurses. But he kept his order banning local mask and vaccine mandates, despite growing defiance and legal challenges.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Tuesday got a temporary restraining order on Abbott’s ban as Dallas city school officials require students and staff to wear masks in campus buildings. “Dallas County citizens will be irreparably harmed if Judge Jenkins cannot initiate appropriate mitigation strategies,” a civil district court judge wrote. Another temporary restraining order cleared the way Tuesday for San Antonio and Bexar County to mandate masks in schools as well.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa on Tuesday accused Abbott of blocking local covid-19 measures for “political reasons because he wants to ensure that he gets elected in his primary, which is controlled primarily by people who are anti-vaccine people and anti-maskers.” Abbott faces multiple conservative challengers, including former Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West, who once protested Abbott’s earlier coronavirus restrictions outside the governor’s mansion.

Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze expressed confidence that the governor’s order would stand.

“Governor Abbott’s resolve to protect the rights and freedoms of all Texans has not wavered,” she said in a statement. “There have been dozens of legal challenges to the Governor’s executive orders — all of which have been upheld in the end.”

Noem has touted her opposition to mask mandates and her decision to give the green light to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which more than 460,000 people attended last year. As many as 700,000 are expected at this year’s event, which began Friday.

“It really comes down to what my authority is,” Noem said at the rally Monday. “I don’t believe that governors have the authority to tell people that they have to shut down their businesses and they have to shelter in place and to pass mandates.”

DeSantis, too, has made opposition to covid-19 rules a key part of his political branding. This summer, his political team started selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” beer koozies and T-shirts as he said that the state had chosen “freedom” over the pandemic precautions advocated by White House chief medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci.

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He doubled down as the delta variant pushed covid-19 hospitalizations in Florida to record highs. This week, DeSantis threatened to withhold the pay of school officials who defy his executive order barring campus mask mandates, which criticized the Biden administration for “unscientific and inconsistent recommendations that school-aged children wear masks.” He also vowed to appeal a federal judge’s decision to temporarily block his ban on vaccine passports and allow a cruise company to require immunization against the coronavirus.

The CDC changed its mask guidance last month as new data suggested people who are vaccinated can in rare cases spread the virus, and as millions of Americans — including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination — have yet to get their shots.

The White House has been urging all unvaccinated Americans to get the vaccine, warning that as schools reopen, children’s health is particularly at risk. The Biden administration is also examining whether it can direct unused stimulus funds to support educators in Florida who may defy DeSantis’s order against mask mandates in schools.

During a news conference Tuesday, President Biden evoked the image of “little kids — I mean, 4 or 5, 6 years old, in hospitals on ventilators, and some of them passing.” He criticized Republican governors without naming them, noting that many of the same leaders who have denounced mask mandates as government overreach are now attempting to override the decisions of local school boards in their states.

“I find that totally counterintuitive and, quite frankly, disingenuous,” Biden said.

Some Republicans have sounded a similar note.

“It is a bedrock conservative principle that — whenever possible — decisions should be made at the level of government closest to the people,” said Michael Steel, a longtime Republican strategist who was a top aide to former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “A state-level mandate that overrides local school boards’ decisions seems to contradict that principle.”

Some current and former Republicans said they think a worsening covid-19 surge could eventually force governors to change course.

“I do think as this begins to take more and more of a toll, the political reality may begin to shift,” said Arkansas state Sen. Jim Hendren (I), a former GOP leader in the state legislature who this year left the party. “We are literally at a crisis.”

At a Tuesday news briefing, Hutchinson — who is Hendren’s uncle — echoed health leaders’ alarm about spiking infections and increasingly young people hospitalized. “I think we’re in worse position, in terms of our ICU beds, than we were in January,” he said.

Yet Hendren has little hope that Arkansas legislators will follow Hutchinson’s call to undo the measure. At a Tuesday afternoon committee meeting, Republican lawmakers were talking about banning companies from instituting vaccine requirements, after Walmart and Tyson Foods — both headquartered in Arkansas — mandated vaccines for their employees.

“Right now,” Hendren said, “it’s more a game of defense, of stopping them from making it even worse.”

Laura Meckler and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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