Democratic Governors’ COVID Response Has Been No Better than Republicans’ 1

When it comes to COVID-19 blame, Republicans have gotten the shaft while Democrats have it made in the shade. 

This is, of course, at least partly because Donald Trump is president. It is hard to ignore his disastrous mishandling of the virus or the fact that he dominates so much media attention. 

While it has become fashionable to rip Republican governors for their COVID-19 response, it is stunning how Democratic governors have generally gotten a pass (and sometimes even high praise) for their poor performance. 

Let’s take California, our largest state by population (the third largest by land area). It was the first state to announce a stay-at-home order in March. But on May 9, after receiving praise and attention for his handling of the virus, Governor Gavin Newsom reopened the state, and it’s been all downhill since then. 

“The bottom line is that we opened up too soon in California, and now we’re paying the price,” Anne Rimoin, a renowned epidemiologist, told the New York Daily News. “We didn’t eradicate the virus. We just flattened the curve. It’s still spreading in communities because we don’t have herd immunity yet or anything close to it,” Rimoin continued. “We got complacent.”

You might argue that New York was caught unawares, but you can’t really make that argument for California. In their case, a very big, very important, and very Democratic state consciously decided to take their collective foot off the pedal, an apparent result of Newsom caving to the immense political pressure from California residents. 

“New York had a peak very, very early, and everybody there saw the horror of what could happen. Here in California, we didn’t have that experience. We did not take the risk as seriously, which is a common problem in public health,” said Rimoin.

Speaking of New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has been treated like a celebrity taking an absurd victory lap—most recently, appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But Cuomo initially downplayed the virus, and his decision to order nursing homes and long-term care facilities to take coronavirus patients released from hospitals cost untold numbers of lives. 

Yet, I haven’t read about many mainstream media figures (save for CNN’s Jake Tapper) criticizing him. The same goes for the governor of California, whose state was spiking around the same time as Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas.The media narrative focused on how these red states had reopened too soon, but I didn’t hear much about California. 

Throughout the spring, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer had scandals involving giving the green light to a contractor with Democratic ties to do contact tracing, as well as her husband’s desire to get his boat on the water (at a time when Whitmer was discouraging it). Were this Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, we can only imagine how the national media might have treated the story. 

There are other problems in Democratic-governed states. Colorado is nearing peak COVID-19 levels, but you could get a haircut there on May 1. In Delaware, a dozen people were recently given incorrect COVID results. In North Carolina, prisons continued to transfer inmates during the pandemic and are out of compliance with COVID-19 court orders. Some Democratic leaders (such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy) violated their own COVID-19 orders by participating in Black Lives Matter marches. You probably haven’t heard much about these stories… which is sort of my point. 

Now, you’re probably thinking this is anecdotal cherry=picking. And it is. But consider the data: Of the New York Times list of states where new cases are increasing (as of July 27), the majority have Democratic governors. 

Those states include Louisiana, Nevada, California, Wisconsin, New Mexico, North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois, Washington, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. 

Also included on the list are Washington, D.C., which is not a state, but has a Democratic mayor, and Puerto Rico, which is not a state, but has a governor who is a member of the New Progressive Party. 

Now, these statistics are a snapshot. They do not tell the whole story. A state with more robust testing might, as Trump often laments, be “rewarded” with higher incidence of infection. One could also argue that deaths is a more important statistic (but even here, the death rate in blue states—mainly driven by the horrific numbers in New York and New Jersey—is higher than the death rate in red states). In fairness, high-density states, which tend to be Democratic, probably do face a more difficult challenge. The point is that there are many variables involved. 

“Some Democratic leaders (such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy) violated their own COVID-19 orders by participating in Black Lives Matter marches. ”

But if that isn’t enough to convince you Republican governors got a raw deal, consider this: Seth Masket of FiveThirtyEight looked at the first recorded case of COVID-19 in each state, and then at how many days passed before governors imposed a “stay at home” or shelter in place” order. According to Masket, “I found a governor’s party affiliation didn’t make a huge difference in when the order was issued.”

This is somewhat misleading. At the time (Masket’s piece was written way back in April), there were still eight governors—all Republicans—who hadn’t imposed any statewide orders (these tended to be rural states like Iowa). But as Masket noted, the difference among those who did was small. “The median Democratic governor imposed such an order 21 days after the first case appeared and the median Republican governor took 25 days.”

What does this all mean? As an observer, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Democrats are handling COVID-19 worse than Republicans. But an easier argument—one the data seem to confirm, even if the media coverage downplays it—is that Democratic states are not handling it well, and that Republican governors are (generally speaking) taking the brunt of the coronavirus political hits. 

Thanks, Trump!