Will moderate Democrats turn on Biden's vaccine mandate?

President Biden and Laura Kelly.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock, New York Times)

It's never easy being the Democratic governor of a famously red state. Still, it was a surprise Friday morning when Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) came out strongly against President Biden's workplace vaccine mandate.

"While I appreciate the intention to keep people safe, a goal I share, I don't believe this directive is the correct, or the most effective, solution for Kansas," said Kelly, who beat notorious anti-immigration firebrand Kris Kobach (R) in 2018. "I will seek a resolution that continues to recognize the uniqueness of our state and builds on our ongoing efforts to combat a once-in-a-century crisis."

It's probably not a coincidence Kelly made her statement in the immediate aftermath of Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia's gubernatorial race. Kelly is preparing to run for re-election — most likely against Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who has already joined a federal lawsuit against the mandate. By opposing Biden's rule now, she robs Schmidt of a potent issue while signaling her independence from national Democrats. This is pretty much how Dems have to run in Kansas.

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The question is whether Kelly's move is a one-off or if other moderate Democrats will join her in opposing Biden's mandate.

Politically speaking, this might be the moment to do it. COVID cases are falling and Biden has become fairly unpopular. The United Kingdom has just given approval to Merck's antiviral pill, and Pfizer on Friday morning announced its own anti-COVID pill has proven effective. Democratic politicians who are nervous about their futures might decide they can gamble on these developments to hold the line against the pandemic while giving themselves space from the president.

Whether that's a great idea for public health isn't clear. Vaccines work. And despite all the hubbub and anger, vaccine mandates have proven fairly effective at getting hesitant workers to finally get their shots. (There are exceptions.) The new pills may be great at reducing hospitalizations and deaths after you've already contracted COVID, but doctors believe vaccines help slow the spread of the virus — and, with it, the possibility of new variants.

We've seen politicians gamble on the end of the pandemic before, only for hospitalizations and deaths to come roaring back. That's not worked out great for health or politics. But Kelly has apparently calculated that this time is different — we'll see if other panicking Democrats follow her lead.

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