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On the trail: Sununu, Hassan, leagues apart on Biden COVID vaccine mandate

  • David Cawthron (center) of Nashua came with his father (far left) to the press conference that turned into a rally at the State House on Tuesday, September 14, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER

For the Monitor
Published: 9/17/2021 12:08:12 PM

It’s the hottest and most divisive issue in American politics right now – whether the federal government should be mandating COVID vaccinations amid a surge in coronavirus cases this summer due to the highly contagious delta variant.

In New Hampshire – Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who may possibly face off next year in what would be one of the most crucial and expensive Senate races in the country – are miles part when it comes to President Joe Biden’s push to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for up to 100 million American workers.

Sununu this week called the president’s mandate “a very dangerous thing” and pledged legal action to block it. Hassan took the opposite approach, saying “vaccine and testing requirements are common sense.”

The president last week announced new, wide-ranging, federal COVID vaccine requirements for those working at companies with 100 or more employees, health care workers, and federal contractors.

With studies indicating that the delta variant’s infection rate among those who are vaccinated is significantly lower than in people who have resisted taking the vaccine, Biden took aim at the tens of millions of Americans who have yet to get vaccinated, even after months of availability and federal, state, and local incentives to get the shots.

“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” the president said during a White House speech. He stressed that the minority of Americans who are unvaccinated “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”

The president’s actions sparked a quick reaction from Republican leaders across the country – as well as some union leaders – charging that Biden was going too far and superseding his authority in trying to force private companies and their workers to take the vaccines.

Following up on comments he made late last week, Sununu on Wednesday joined other Republican governors across the country in saying he was exploring legal ways to head off Biden’s vaccine mandates. During a news conference, Sununu said he’s been in touch with other governors and state attorneys general about how to push back against the president’s mandates.

“Mandating a vaccine is not good government because once you start that, you say it’s ‘just a mandate, what’s the big deal?’ But the precedent that it sets, the path that you then open up for whatever might come in the future,” Sununu warned. “You have now set a precedent for decades to come. And that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Like other GOP leaders across the country, Sununu emphasized that he’s supportive of the vaccines but opposed to mandates.

“As much as I want everyone vaccinated, there is also an understanding that individuals do have individual rights. And I do have a job to also protect those individual rights and we’ll take whatever legal action we can with other governors,” he said.

“I get angry when I see a lot of people not vaccinated. I want everybody vaccinated, but that doesn’t mean that the end goal is justified,” he added.

Sununu – who has yet to decide if he’ll run for reelection or challenge Hassan next year, or step away from politics and return to the private sector – also took aim at New Hampshire’s all Democratic congressional delegation for not taking a stance on the mandates.

“I don’t know where they are. I think all weekend, they sat silently about it. It shocked me. This is a federal issue, a federal mandate, but the majority of our federal delegation says absolutely nothing about this,” he charged.

Hassan did weigh in earlier this week, writing that “it’s imperative that we decisively act so that Americans — whether business owners, employees, or consumers — can get past this pandemic.”

She said she supports requiring employees in large and mid-size businesses to have regular COVID tests or get vaccinated.

“This isn’t a new idea.,” Hassan said. “Since the beginning of our nation’s history, we’ve battled the spread of disease and illness through vaccination requirements — from George Washington requiring his troops to get the smallpox vaccine during America’s founding to the requirement that children receive the Polio vaccine — Americans have seen and understood the threat that pandemics pose to our way of life, economy, and ultimately our freedom.”

“Today, every state in the country requires certain vaccinations for children to protect their health and prevent outbreaks that can cost lives and hurt our economy, and our military requires a wide range of vaccines for service members, ensuring the health and readiness of our armed forces,” Hassan added.

Sununu’s stance is in-line with nearly every other Republican governor in the nation. But among the rare exceptions are the two other GOP governors in New England.

Last week, Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont retweeted the president’s tweet announcing his new COVID plan, welcoming the new requirements.

This week Massachusetts GOP Gov. Charlie Baker said he was hesitant to comment on the president’s vaccine mandate because he’s yet to see specifics in Biden’s plan besides last week’s “press release and speech.”

Baker, who’s already ordered that tens of thousands of Massachusetts government workers and contractors get the vaccine or face possible termination, said on Thursday said on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio that he’s looking into potentially creating a statewide system for proving COVID-19 vaccination.

“I certainly think it’s going to be an important thing to have,” he emphasized.

National polls released this week by CNN, Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University indicated that Americans are split on the vaccine mandates, with an extremely wide partisan divide, but suggest that support for them is growing.

Democrats are encouraged by the landslide victory on Tuesday by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who was facing a recall drive that was sparked last year mainly over accusations that he mishandled his state’s response to the worst pandemic to strike the globe in a century. The effort was fueled by frustrations over California’s COVID restrictions on businesses and houses of worship, and school shutdowns.

Over the past two months Newsom and his allies touted his efforts to vaccinate Californians and warned about morbid consequences if a conservative Republican replaced him in running the state. Newsom repeatedly called the election “a choice about life and death.”

The day after Newsom’s big victory, Democratic Governors Association chair Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico predicted that the upcoming elections are “going to be a referendum on the pandemic.”

In a potential taste of things to come during a possible Hassan-Sununu face-off next year, vaccine mandates were front and center in Thursday night’s Virginia gubernatorial debate, the first showdown between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin ahead of November’s election.

Republicans argue that the results in California – where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin – are not a good barometer of things to come in electoral battlegrounds such as New Hampshire.

The energy among Republican base voters and other supporters of former President Donald Trump currently weighs heavily against the vaccines. If that wasn’t clear, Tuesday’s rally by state GOP lawmakers outside the State House in Concord – where a large crowd of some 500 people vented their anger at the mandates and demanded that lawmakers block them – made that point crystal clear.

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