The Oklahoman

COVID-19 quickens the shift in GOP brand

Pro-business party tilting toward populism

- Mark Niquette Bloomberg News/TNS

The conflicts between businesses and Republican leaders like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over vaccine mandates highlights the GOP’s shift from a probusines­s, anti-regulatory party to one that answers to a populist base.

Similar disputes are playing out nationally as anti-vaccine politics have run into strategies by companies to operate their businesses safely and as they see fit.

Abbott’s executive order issued Monday barring any entity, including an employer, from requiring a coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n puts him squarely in opposition to the plans of many Texas businesses.

Also, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on

Republican politician­s responding to voters advocating populist positions championed by former President Donald Trump have made minimizing the virus an act of personal freedom.

Tuesday proposed a law to shield workers from dismissal for not getting COVID-19 vaccines.

Abbott’s order puts companies in a bind between it and President Joe Biden’s directive for companies with 100 or more employees to require workers be vaccinated. Abbott was once considered the champion of corporate interests while DeSantis is leading in some GOP polls for the 2024 presidenti­al election.

Business groups and the companies they represent say vaccines and other mitigation measures are crucial to beating the pandemic and spurring the economic recovery, a view Biden encourages. But Republican politician­s responding to voters advocating populist positions championed by former President Donald Trump have made minimizing the virus an act of personal freedom.

That approach may cost some GOP candidates the corporate support they once could rely on. Some states’ chambers of commerce, including in Ohio and Oklahoma, are considerin­g how to respond to what they consider to be “anti-business Republican­s.”

“If they’re anti-business, they should be worried that we’re going to put a target on their back,” said Steve Stivers, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber and a former Republican member of Congress.

In Oklahoma, the State Chamber and other business interests also might scrutinize Republican lawmakers who are championin­g a measure to prohibit employers from requiring vaccines when the state legislatur­e returns in February, President and CEO Chad Warmington said.

“It could cause them to take a strong look at the people that are supporting this and say, ‘Hey, are they really for, you know, businesses in the state? Are they really promoters of free enterprise? Do they really believe in the principles that we thought that they did?”’ Warmington said.

The moves to impose prohibitio­ns on businesses come as many large companies, including Walmart Inc., United Airlines Holdings Inc., the Walt Disney Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have started to require the vaccine.

Some, like McDonald’s Corp., have mandated inoculatio­ns for office workers but not for front-line employees. United CEO Scott Kirby has said that more than 98% of the airline’s U.S.-based employees have been vaccinated.

Texas-based American Airlines Group Inc., the biggest U.S. airline, and No. 4 Southwest Airlines Co. said on Tuesday they would defy Abbott’s order and instead follow Biden’s requiremen­ts.

Republican officials such as Abbott and DeSantis have defended prohibitio­ns on businesses on grounds that no one should be forced to get the vaccine or wear a mask.

DeSantis on Tuesday also said that he would contest federal vaccine mandates for large private-sector businesses.

He has backed issuing fines to companies that require patrons to show proof of vaccinatio­n, saying at a news conference in Pensacola last month that his job is “not to protect corporate freedom,” a position the GOP once embraced.

The governor isn’t concerned about losing business support because government must protect individual rights and allow people to make their own medical decisions, DeSantis spokeswoma­n Christina Pushaw said.

“Being pro-business does not mean enabling corporate policies that violate individual rights,” Pushaw said.

Still, executives like United’s Kirby and business groups such as the Greater Houston Partnershi­p, the city’s chamber of commerce, see employer-driven mandates as the way to defeat the pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans.

“Vaccinatio­ns are our path out of the pandemic, and the partnershi­p remains focused on supporting steps that lead to improving the rate of vaccinatio­n in our community,” Bob Harvey, the partnershi­p’s president and CEO said in a statement.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday assailed the moves by Abbott and DeSantis, saying they’re “putting politics ahead of public health” and “every leader should be focused on supporting efforts to save lives and end the pandemic.”

Abbott spokeswoma­n Renae Eze said that some Texans are worried about losing their jobs if they refuse a vaccine mandate, and Biden’s requiremen­t leaves employers with a choice of violating federal regulation­s or losing workers. The governor’s order “will help protect Texans from having to make that choice,” Eze said in a statement.

In Ohio, House Republican­s on Wednesday paused hearings for lack of a consensus on a bill to prohibit businesses from requiring vaccines that aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administra­tion. The bill would otherwise allow mandates — with exemptions including “reasons of conscience.”

It was an attempted compromise after business groups opposed an earlier bill to prohibit mandates. The Ohio chamber still opposes it as a “kinder and gentler” way of taking authority away from business owners, Stivers said.

Stivers, who resigned from Congress in May to take over the Ohio chamber, is a former head of the National Republican Congressio­nal Committee. Now, he’s ramping up fundraisin­g for the chamber’s political action committee.

Republican politician­s have embraced opposition to vaccine and mask mandates as outrage against them grew on the right, reflecting the party’s changing voter base.

A Gallup poll released Sept. 3 found that 56% of Americans favor requiring proof of vaccinatio­n to go to an office or work site.

But that support plunges among Republican­s to only 24%, compared to 88% of Democrats and 43% of independen­ts. Republican­s say it should be a matter of personal choice.

Polls also show that Republican­s are not as concerned about business interests as they once were.

Gallup found a sharp drop in the percentage of Republican­s who are satisfied with the size and influence of major corporatio­ns, falling to a record-low 31% in January from 57% a year earlier. Satisfacti­on with big business among Democrats remained essentiall­y unchanged at about 25%, the surveys found.

While businesses are still more aligned with the GOP than Democrats on issues such as taxation, the more that American party politics is defined by the culture wars, the more it puts businesses — especially big business — in conflict with traditiona­l Republican partisan allies, said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor who has studied and written about political polarizati­on.

“The problem is really the replacemen­t of the traditiona­l business-friendly leadership of the Republican Party with a much more culturally motivated leadership,” Hopkins said.

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