Virginia governor’s race: What does ‘pro-business’ mean in a pandemic?

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes a turn at the cash register at Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia, ahead of the Nov. 2 election.

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For years, Republican candidates have cast themselves as “pro-business” by hewing to a platform of tax cuts and deregulation. But 18 months into a global pandemic, the definition of “pro-business” may be shifting, with many voters now seeing the economy and public health as inextricably linked. 

In Virginia’s gubernatorial election, where polls show a tight race with just five weeks to go, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is arguing there will be no real economic recovery until the pandemic is contained – and that mask and vaccine mandates are business-friendly measures. 

Why We Wrote This

With the economy and public health increasingly linked, will voters see mask and vaccine mandates as helping businesses or hindering them? The Virginia governor’s race may provide a test case.

“Businesses support vaccination,” Mr. McAuliffe says. “I want to build a booming economy again, and you can’t do that with COVID. Businesses are not going to move to a county with sky-high rates of COVID and low rates of vaccinations.”

His Republican opponent, former CEO and first-time politician Glenn Youngkin, says many business owners have told him they don’t want mandates imposed on them and their employees. He believes the policy could backfire and actually hurt economic growth. 

“If businesses want to act, then it is the business’s decision,” says Mr. Youngkin. “Mandates are not the answer.”

At Todos Supermarket, one of Virginia’s largest Hispanic grocery stores, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is making the case for his pro-business agenda.

Working a stint at the cash register, he hands one woman her change. “I hope you know how to count money, unlike the current governor,” she quips. 

The former CEO explains his plan to eliminate the grocery tax, suspend the gas tax, and invest in education – all of which sound great to Todos’ owner, Carlos Castro.

Why We Wrote This

With the economy and public health increasingly linked, will voters see mask and vaccine mandates as helping businesses or hindering them? The Virginia governor’s race may provide a test case.

But Mr. Castro says he has a more pressing concern right now: curbing COVID-19.

Pandemic-induced shortages of equipment, supplies, and labor have delayed the opening of his second Todos store. Enhanced unemployment benefits, he says, have made it difficult to retain staff. And it’s been a constant battle to encourage customers to wear masks and employees to get vaccinated.

For years, GOP candidates like Mr. Youngkin have cast themselves as “pro-business” by hewing to a platform of tax cuts and deregulation. But 18 months into a global pandemic, the definition of “pro-business” may be shifting, with many voters now seeing the economy and public health as inextricably linked. Democratic candidates such as former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe – who’s locked in a tight race with Mr. Youngkin – are leaning into that position, arguing that mask and vaccine mandates are, in fact, business-boosting measures, and that there will be no real economic recovery until the pandemic is contained.

With early voting already underway in Virginia and just five weeks until Election Day, the issue is shaping up as a critical test of how the politics of the pandemic could play out in next year’s midterm elections. 

“The vaccine mandate is really controversial with a lot of Republican voters,” says GOP strategist Alex Conant. “But some business owners welcome the mandates. It allows their employees to be mad at Biden and not them.”

That’s certainly the case for Mr. Castro, who says he’s more than happy for the federal government to step in.

“It’s a blessing for us, because we don’t have to deal with it,” says Mr. Castro. “Now I don’t have to be fighting with anybody.” 

A sharp partisan split

Under the new requirements announced earlier this month by President Joe Biden, employers like Mr. Castro with 100 or more employees must soon have a fully vaccinated workforce or provide weekly testing. Federal workers must be vaccinated or face losing their jobs. Altogether, the mandates will apply to two-thirds of American workers. 

In his speech, President Biden noted that many major companies – such as Fox News – have already implemented similar restrictions on their own. 

“If you look at the polling, businesses support vaccination,” says Mr. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chair who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014-2018. “I want to build a booming economy again, and you can’t do that with COVID. Businesses are not going to move to a county with sky-high rates of COVID and low rates of vaccinations.”

Democrats believe this message – that a healthy economy first means controlling the pandemic – is a winning one. In his recall election victory speech two weeks ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the outcome was a vote for vaccines and “ending this pandemic.” 

“Voters in California didn’t like that Newsom had that fancy dinner [during lockdown], but they thought that it’s better to have this set of pandemic politics than what you get with a Republican,” says Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator and prominent Trump critic, who has endorsed Mr. McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race. “If you look at the world over the past 200 years, it’s good for the economy to have good public health.”

According to a recent poll by Morning Consult, 58% of Americans support the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. But there’s a big partisan split, with 80% of Democrats but only one-third of Republicans in favor.

Former President Donald Trump has harshly rebuked the vaccine requirements, as have Republican governors across the country. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told his state’s cities and counties they would be fined $5,000 per employee if they require public workers to be vaccinated; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had already issued an executive order banning vaccine requirements. Mississippi’s governor called Mr. Biden’s mandates a form of “tyranny,” and South Carolina’s vowed to fight Mr. Biden to “the gates of hell.” Republican attorneys general from 24 states have threatened legal action

Mr. Youngkin, who has emphasized that he is a strong proponent of vaccination, says many business owners have told him they don’t want mandates imposed on them and their employees. 

“The vaccine is the best way for people to protect their health, but it is an individual’s decision. If businesses want to act, then it is the business’s decision,” says Mr. Youngkin. “Mandates are not the answer.”

The first-time politician is walking an especially delicate line in Virginia, a former swing state that turned decidedly bluer over the past decade. Ranked CNBC’s “top state to do business” for the past two years in a row, Virginia will likely have its gubernatorial election decided by turnout in the increasingly Democratic suburbs outside Washington, where many voters support stronger steps to prevent the virus’s spread. 

“Republicans are sick of the pandemic too,” says GOP strategist Whit Ayres. “A reflexive less-regulation message may not be effective when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.” 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Carlos Castro, owner of Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia, says he welcomes President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates. "Now I don’t have to be fighting with anybody," says Mr. Castro, who has struggled to retain employees during the pandemic. "We need to get people back to work. We need to get the economy moving."

“We need to get the economy moving”

But general concerns about the economy – even if stemming from the pandemic’s effects – could still work to Mr. Youngkin’s benefit. In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, registered voters in Virginia ranked the economy as the top voting issue in November’s election, followed by the coronavirus. While voters trusted Mr. McAuliffe to do a better job handling the pandemic by 44% to 35%, Mr. Youngkin had a one-percentage-point edge on handling the economy. 

“For business owners, there is a lot more that goes into [their vote] than ‘Do you support vaccine mandates?’ – and those are the reasons that they have traditionally supported Republicans,” says Mr. Conant, the GOP strategist. 

Mr. Castro, for his part, says he hasn’t decided for whom he will vote. He backed Mr. McAuliffe in 2014, and thought he was a good governor. But he also says he believes in “political diversity” and wants to support more moderate Republicans, who might steer the party toward the center on issues like immigration. As an employer, he’s worried that pro-union Democrats in Congress may weaken or even nullify Virginia’s “right to work” law.

Still, he says his vote will likely come down to which candidate will end the pandemic more quickly – and right now, he believes that’s Mr. McAuliffe. 

“We need to get people back to work,” says Mr. Castro. “We need to get the economy moving.”

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