In this edition: The pandemic fades from the GOP primary, Mike Pence’s PAC goes after Trump, and ex-Rep. Mondaire Jones talks about his comeback bid.
Programming note: I’m getting married on Saturday, and “Americana” will return on July 25. In the meantime, you can follow Semafor’s political coverage from Shelby Talcott, Morgan Chalfant, Benjy Sarlin, Kadia Goba, and Joseph Zeballos-Roig on Principals and our other newsletters.
America is moving on from COVID. That’s not good for Ron DeSantis.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Mask mandates are finished, even in hospitals. The federal COVID emergency ended two months ago, along with the last federal vaccine requirements. And last week, for the first time since Gallup began asking Americans about the pandemic, a majority of them said that it was “over.”
That shifting attitude has started to show up in the race for president. Ron DeSantis, whose battles against mask and vaccine mandates made him a Republican star, has lost ground as voters move on from the pandemic. And attacking Donald Trump’s early handling of the COVID outbreak, accusing the former president of destroying “millions of lives” by supporting stay-at-home measures and not firing top health officials, hasn’t paid off.
One reason COVID policy is a tough sell for DeSantis: The states that get first crack at picking a GOP nominee had experiences much closer to Florida’s than New York’s or California’s.
Stay-at-home orders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were ended before the CDC recommended it; in all three states, public schools were allowed to re-open for the 2020-2021 school year. Mask mandates ended in Iowa in February 2021; in New Hampshire two months later; and in South Carolina, McMaster ended local mask mandates in May 2021.
The “Faucian dystopia” that DeSantis talks about preventing in Florida never came to Dubuque or Nashua or Spartanburg. That wasn’t necessarily a problem for DeSantis, said Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel; he could “connect to the audience” by praising Gov. Kim Reynolds for handling COVID like he did.
“It’s not at the top of the issue set, but it is something of a threshold you have to clear,” said Kochel. “I don’t think it lessens DeSantis’ effectiveness. It probably makes it easier.”
Another reason for the fade: Stay-at-home orders and vaccination were least controversial among older voters, the likeliest to show up for Republican primaries. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, 95% of retirement-age voters got vaccinated; a smaller share, but still a majority, received booster shots.
One more reason: Much of the organizing power against mandates and school closures has already transferred to other causes. Moms for Liberty led the way. In 2022, when DeSantis keynoted the group’s first national conference, he spent about half his time recounting his conflicts with the media and medical authorities to protect “the free state of Florida.”
At last week’s Moms for Liberty conference in Philadelphia, DeSantis didn’t mention COVID, masks, or school closures in his 25-minute speech, discussing them only when the group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice praised his pandemic response in a Q&A.
That was the cause that built Moms for Liberty, which was started in 2021 by parents upset over COVID restrictions in schools. But it had since moved on to campaigns against the material being taught in those schools. Justice told Semafor that reopening schools was the opening act in a larger effort to roll back progressive influence in education.
“It’s not about any specific issue,” Justice said. ”I mean – it was about the masks, but it wasn’t about the masks. It was about school closures, but it wasn’t about the school closures. It’s about parental rights.”
THE VIEW FROM TRUMP WORLD
After DeSantis suggested that he’d have fired then-NIAID director Anthony Fauci, the Trump campaign put out a 30-second compilation of DeSantis’s early, cautious responses to the pandemic —– including some praise of Fauci.
“Every single thing that he criticizes President Trump for, he supported,” said Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller. “It’s gone from him telling revisionist history stories to an issue of credibility and hypocrisy.”
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
“COVID is absolutely something he needs to focus on in the NH primary,” said Jason Osbourne, the GOP leader of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and an early DeSantis endorser. The governor, said Osbourne, needed to highlight “both the assaults on liberty and the insane spending that together have wreaked such devastation on the American economy and the entire world.”
THE VIEW FROM REPUBLICAN VOTERS
When pressed, Republican voters tend to agree with DeSantis. “They want [Fauci’s] head on a spike,” said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard, whose surveys for Public Opinion Strategies have shown DeSantis performing slightly better than Trump in swing states.
Fewer voters are focused on the pandemic now, but the DeSantis approach is still compelling for conservatives who haven’t moved on. Travis Gilson, 41, showed up for DeSantis’s first Iowa rally, fully in support of a probe into how the federal government recommended stay-at-home orders for so long.
“What drove this? What did the President know? When did Fauci know all that stuff?” Gilson said. “Let’s get it out in the open; let’s hold people accountable for what happened, so everyone knows, hey, if you try this stuff, again, there’s gonna be consequences.”
Matthew Yglesias suggested in May that DeSantis was “struggling” without COVID in the news; the issue had let him appeal “to a non-zero minority of people who were not otherwise Republicans,” but it was over.
Trump-appointed district court Judge Terry A. Doughty temporarily banned the Biden administration from communicating with some social media companies, a win for Attorney General Jeff Landry and a boost for his GOP gubernatorial campaign.
Hogsett for Indianapolis, “Jonas.”Another mayoral race in a mid-sized city; another Democrat fending off blame for higher crime. The first ad for Mayor Joe Hogsett, who’s seeking a third term, focuses entirely on a second-generation cop who’s thrilled to be part of the force — and that Hogsett hired 700 more police officers. It’s a prebuttal to a wealthy GOP challenger who’s going to hit him over the city’s higher murder rate.
The Ready for Freddie Committee, “The Ball.” Nashville city council member Freddie O’Connell sets up a binary choice for a very crowded race. It’s him, the guy who voted against taxpayer funding for a new Titans stadium, or anybody else. “Billionaires and bachelorettes? Or us?” asks a narrator, as O’Connell coaches a Bad News Bears-esque team to victory against both of those scourges (Nashville is up there with Las Vegas as the nation’s capital of pre-wedding debauchery). It’s the first ad of the cycle that shows a bachelorette partier flattened after a hit.
Committed to America PAC, “Strength.” Mike Pence criticized Donald Trump from multiple angles at the start of his own presidential campaign — the effort to overturn the 2020 election, his disinterest in spending cuts, his willingness to meet with dictators. That last point, lost in the launch week coverage, gets the 30-second treatment from the pro-Pence super PAC, which puts his remarks (“There is no room in the Republican Party for apologists for Putin”) right next to Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech. It adds something else: Louder and more boisterous applause than Pence got in the room.
Sherrod Brown is the only Democrat still holding statewide office in Ohio after running 7 points ahead of his ticket to win by single digits in 2018. According to that year’s exit poll, he held onto 47% of white voters, and won among voters with a high school education or less. Those demographics have drifted right since then, and Brown isn’t spared from that trend: He gets just 39% of white voters in these match-ups and only wins voters with a four-year college education or more.
The Trump and DeSantis campaigns released their second-quarter fundraising numbers in a cloud of spin – big numbers first, full breakdowns coming later. (The deadline passed at midnight on July 1, but the FEC doesn’t release the full numbers until the middle of the month.)
Trump’s joint fundraising committee raised “more than $35 million,” an estimate first given to Politico. That number included the previously-reported donation surges that came after Trump was indicted in New York, then Florida; the campaign claimed $4.5 million in online fundraising in the 24 hours after that second indictment.
DeSantis, who entered the race six weeks before the end of the quarter, claimed a $20 million haul, comparable to what Bernie Sanders raised in the first six weeks of his 2020 campaign. But Sanders famously refused help from super PACs; Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, is running a field operation and ad campaign for him, and raised $130 million. Most of that ($82.5 million) was transferred at the start of the campaign from DeSantis’s Florida campaign PAC, an unprecedented tactic made possible after the Republican members of the Federal Election Commission allowed a congressional candidate to move money from a state campaign.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for We, The 45 Million)
“I am running to finish the work that I started,” says Mondaire Jones, “and to save democracy itself from an increasingly fascist Republican Party.”
The work he’d started was a seemingly promising run in the House, which he joined in 2021 after winning a safe Democratic seat in New York’s Hudson Valley. Jones, the first openly gay Black man elected to Congress, carried the party’s new voting rights bill and became a favorite of the-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Then came redistricting. The short version: New York Democrats drew a favorable gerrymander, Republicans sued and got it thrown out, a judge imposed a new map on the state, and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney — without a “heads up” to his colleague — switched to run in Jones’ district. Jones ran for Congress in Brooklyn, lost, and this week, announced a comeback bid for his re-drawn seat, which Republican Rep. Mike Lawler won in November.
Americana: What district do you expect to be running in? Are you assuming it’ll change or be changed before next November?
Mondaire Jones: I’m assuming that I will be running in the district as it’s presently drawn, and I fully intend to defeat Mike Lawler on his record. This is a district that woke up horrified to learn that its member of Congress is against the freedom to have an abortion; that he voted to gut the IRS, so that billionaires and corporations could more easily cheat on their taxes. He opposes an assault weapons ban; we here in suburbia are deeply concerned that our kids are getting gunned down in schools. He said that the FBI and the DOJ are politicized, without any evidence, following the indictment of Donald Trump by Jack Smith. There is nothing moderate about those positions.
Americana: You used the term “fascism” to describe Republicans — can you unpack that a little? What are they doing that’s fascist?
Mondaire Jones: This is a Republican Party seeking not only to assail the right to vote, but not to certify free and fair elections. Donald Trump is now saying he’s going to appoint people who are partial to him as the head of the FBI and the DOJ if he gets another term in the White House. And he’s called for jailing his political opponents. That is authoritarian behavior. That is fascism. I’m old enough to remember when people clutch their pearls when Joe Biden used that word last year. But he’s been vindicated.
Can I just say this? The word “moderate” has to mean something. What does it matter if you don’t self identify as an extreme MAGA Republican, so long as your voting behavior is indistinguishable from those individuals? The only “moderate” vote of his, that I’m aware of, is that he voted for only one of two anti-trans bills after intense pressure from LGBTQ+ activists in Rockland County. This is a district that is highly educated, and wants to see government work. This is not a socially conservative district.
Americana: How did he win in the first place?
Mondaire Jones: Mike is a career political operative who will tell you anything you want to hear. And he was running against a uniquely unpopular Democratic nominee who my constituents blamed for having pushed me out of my seat and for having created the redistricting nightmare in the state that we all experienced. There was a tremendous enthusiasm gap — to say nothing of what I think people in both parties here will tell you, which is that he didn’t show up to actually campaign the district.
Americana: You started your House career with the second Trump impeachment. What’s your reaction to the effort — led by Rep. Elise Stefanik, from the NY delegation — to expunge that?
Mondaire Jones: These are not serious people. You cannot take back an impeachment. You certainly can’t take back two impeachments. When I was in Congress, I voted to lower the cost of prescription drugs; I voted to enact voting rights legislation; I negotiated the bipartisan infrastructure bill and brought hundreds of millions of dollars to my district for schools, housing and health care. Look at what Republicans have done with the place in my absence!
I want to continue my work to lower prescription drug costs, including for people who are not on Medicare. I want to codify Roe v. Wade, and pass universal background checks and an assault weapons ban to keep our community safe. I want to save the idea of multiracial democracy in this country once and for all, passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is a bill I co-authored.
Americana: Would you continue the House investigation into Hunter Biden?
Mondaire Jones: If Hunter Biden is guilty of crimes that anyone else would go to prison for, then lock his ass up. But that has nothing to do with President Joe Biden.
Americana: Do you still want to expand the Supreme Court?
Mondaire Jones: It has been five days since I became a second class citizen, due to the Supreme Court’s decision in 303 Creative. It has been approximately one year since the far right supermajority on the Supreme Court ended the 50 year old constitutional right to have an abortion. It has been 10 years since the conservative majority on the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act unleashing the present wave of racist voter suppression that we are now experiencing throughout the country.
So, yes, restoring balance and integrity to the Supreme Court to protect our basic freedom and save democracy itself remains a priority of mine. And I am so glad to be vindicated in the polling on this question from Democrats, independents, and even a good number of Republicans. As sad as I am over the events that had to happen in order for people to come to that realization.
Americana: In 2022, the “electability” line against you in the primary was that you were too left-wing to win the redrawn seat. Do you still support Medicare for All and a Green New Deal?
Mondaire Jones: Yes, and so does [Pennsylvania Rep.] Matt Cartwright, who won in a district that Trump won by three points. Call me crazy, but I believe that in the richest nation in the history of the world, everyone should have health care.
Look, we’re going to see Republicans throw potentially tens of millions of dollars at me, distorting my record. I am proud to have a legislative record of consistently voting for historic levels of police funding. I stood up to members of my party when I negotiated a passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law that had been held up. And I’m very proud of my pro-Israel record. It’s going to be hard to paint me as some radical, because my constituents know me to be pragmatic, and focused on results.