Parents' COVID Frustrations Are A Political Issue For Democrats : The NPR Politics Podcast White suburban mothers were a key, persuadable voting block in 2020 who helped to secure Biden the presidency. Now, their softening support for COVID safety measures in schools could be a boon for Republicans in November.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and Connecticut Public reporter Catherine Shen.

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Parents' COVID Frustrations Are A Political Issue For Democrats

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SANDRA: Hi there. This is Sandra (ph) from Chico, Calif. Two years ago, my fiancé and I had to postpone our wedding because we were in the middle of a pandemic. But today is our wedding day. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:12 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, February 22. Oh, my God. It's the 2/22/2022. It's a very historic day.

SANDRA: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this, but today on Tuesday, 2/22/22...

KHALID: Ha.

SANDRA: ...I'm getting married.

KHALID: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: Congratulations (laughter).

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What an unforgettable wedding date. You're never going to be like, wait, did we get married on the 21st or the 23rd?

KHALID: Yeah, exactly, right? You're going to know.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: I love it. Enjoy the day. Hey there! It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And today on the show, we have got a special guest. Catherine Shen from Connecticut Public Radio is joining us. Hey there.

CATHERINE SHEN, BYLINE: Hello, everyone. Nice to be here.

KHALID: Catherine, thank you for coming on. We really appreciate it. So you are joining us because we are now entering the third year of our pandemic life, and, for parents in particular, they have been exhausted. Full disclosure - as a parent of two littles, I too have been very exhausted. But both you all have done some really good reporting about what that means politically - how a lot of parents are angry about how COVID policies have affected their kids. And in this year's midterms, Republicans think they can win over this angry-parent demographic. Sue, you have actually been talking to some of those parents, so why don't you start by telling us what you've been hearing?

DAVIS: Sure. I mean, I sort of started out on this because I've seen a lot of conflict rising up between parents and their local school boards. I think we've seen this playing out all over the country for varying different reasons, and I really wanted to reach out and talk to some of these parents to get a sense of how this would be playing out in the midterms. And I talked to, you know, some parents all over the country, but I started out in Connecticut where Catherine is now. And part of when I started this reporting - where I was like, oh, wow; I see this big, red, flashing sign - is I found these moms. One of them is a former Democrat who has already switched parties to Republicans over this. And that was like...

KHALID: Wait - over this issue, she flipped?

DAVIS: Yes - over the issue of how COVID policies in their local area have been affecting their children. There was this sort of former Democrat, disillusioned Democrat, independent voter who I think, increasingly, is just really angry. There's a lot to it, but I would say, specifically, we're seeing it play out a lot with mask mandates, people pushing back on their local schools on their mask mandates. And that party switcher I talked to, her name is Amelia Fogarty (ph) - born and raised a Democrat, voted straight ticket Democrat her entire life. She's made the decision to become a Republican, and she even acknowledged to me that it's actually been a huge part of blowback in her personal life.

AMELIA FOGARTY: It's been really sad and very isolating, but I have stuck to my guns because I just - I feel very strongly in my heart that I know that this is not right.

KHALID: When she says that she knows that this is not right, is she talking about masking...

DAVIS: Mask mandates.

KHALID: ...Policies with her local school district? OK. So to be clear, Sue, she voted for Joe Biden in the last presidential election?

DAVIS: Yeah. To me, what I found was striking about it is where is there movement in the politics? And I think we see movement among a group, and I still - it's clearly still a minority. But, you know, you see some movement among independents and people who identified as Democrats away from their party on this. And if that's happening more broadly in the country, like, this could have a really big impact in a lot of elections this fall, not just in Congress, but for governors, local elections, where I think you are seeing a lot of voters that Democrats really counted on as being part of their own tent sort of questioning where they are with this party right now because of how they have handled COVID, specifically as it relates to their kids.

KHALID: So, Catherine, I want to hear what you've been hearing as well up there in Connecticut. You've been certainly covering how some of these policies have been playing out in the local community. What have folks been telling you?

SHEN: So a lot of the storytelling that I've been doing is focused on remote learning and how parents want to have the option, but it does sort of reflect on the same issue where these parents who want the remote learning option tend to also want to have a school mask mandate still in place. And so I'm sort of hearing the other side of the anger. And what I find interesting is it's not as loud, but it's just as clear. And in terms of the loudness, I feel like a lot of parents, who may or may not have come out and be active in politics or campaigning or even going to school board meetings - you're finding more parents kind of following that same animation, but just in a different direction. So one of the parents I spoke to was Bianca Nunonez (ph); she's a single mom from Hartford, and she has a second grader who really, really needs that remote learning option.

BIANCA NUNONEZ: I don't have option (laughter). She needs to see - to stay in the school. Really, we are going to stay with them with the mask. But this is not only for my daughter. This is for all the childrens and all the staff, all the community, because I want the best, not only for my family, but the entire community.

SHEN: So what Bianca just said really echoes a lot of the parents I've been speaking with. And I think one of their frustrations - and they're fairly offended by other parents who really want to unmask their kids right now, you know, right this instant. And because, to them, it's a very selfish act because you're only thinking about your child, which is natural. It's a very natural instinct to do that. But then the other side of the parents are thinking, well, but you're not thinking about my kids. And another point that Bianca made, which I think is really crucial, is a lot of families don't have access to health care.

DAVIS: There's also a racial component here, right? I mean...

SHEN: Oh, absolutely.

DAVIS: ...The polling isn't amazing on this issue, but what we do know is that white parents are exponentially more likely to be supportive of making masks optional or rolling back the mandates than non-white parents are. Part of that's health care access, different socioeconomic concerns. But I also think, politically, that also speaks to why a lot of Republicans are looking at that type of demographic as someone that they could win back over, particularly among independents in the suburbs who had been sort of repulsed by the party in the Trump era of politics but now feel equally as angry towards Democrats over actual policies affecting their life. Another mom I spoke to, her name's Caroline Montero (ph). She's another Connecticut mom who's also been advocating on the mask-choice front. And she made the point that, like, a lot of these parents feel like they did all the right things - right? - especially in the beginning. They isolated. They masked. They got vaccinated when they were told to get vaccinated. There's a sense of, like, what are you still making us do, and why are we still just doing it to our kids, who the science - and this is her words - who the science also tells us that COVID isn't a super-high risk for children?

CAROLINE MONTERO: We had one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, and kids were getting vaccinated, and everyone was doing what they were told to do, and then nothing was changing, and people were getting frustrated.

DAVIS: And when I talked about it, it was interesting to hear people sort of engaging in politics. Caroline was, like, really upfront with me that she just, like, never cared about politics before this. She said she only ever voted in presidential elections and not, honestly, always all the time then. She had never engaged in a midterm. And when we talked, I mean, she could rattle off every state rep, you know, where every local school board official was. She said she spent - there was a nine-hour debate in the statehouse recently on this mask issue. She said she watched every hour of the debate. Like, she's never been more engaged in politics in her life. And that's another thing when you start to hear voters say stuff like that to you that as a political reporter, I'm like, OK, there really is something in the water right now when it comes to parents and how they're thinking about how they're going to vote this year.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about this in just a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: And we're back. So I want to start off here by just having you explain some of the politics of this all more clearly. You know, I understand why you're saying some parents that you're speaking with are really frustrated and angry. But why is it that Republicans think that they can win these specific parents over?

DAVIS: Well, as I said before, you know, what our - both our reporting and sort of what polling data exists tells us that the kind of parents - white suburbanites, often tend to be wealthier, are a demographic that is generally more open to possibly voting for a Republican candidate, especially - again, candidates really matter - if Republicans can put up the kinds of candidates that appeal to these voters. And we are seeing increasingly Republicans really embracing this idea that Republicans are, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week, quote, "the party of parents." And I think mask mandates right now at this moment in the pandemic are the issue. But it's much bigger than this, right? Like, I think there is very broad parental anger that children have not been treated well in the pandemic, that the effects of pandemic living on children have been profound. And I talked about that with Liesl Hickey. She's a Republican strategist. She focuses on, like, center-right politics, and she focuses a lot on the suburbs. And she talked about sort of the attitudes about where kids are right now.

LIESL HICKEY: There is a horrific child mental health crisis. There is severe learning loss. There are developmental and speech delays, especially amongst younger children. And there is this just general disruption of children's, like, precious childhood. And parents are looking for someone to hold accountable. I mean, parents have a long memory when it comes to how their children have been treated.

DAVIS: I think about that - parents are looking for someone to hold accountable. So not all of this is rational, right? Like, anger is a huge motivator for voters. There's a part of me that sees an echo in some way to the mood of the 2010 Tea Party wave, as we've referred to it as, but it came out of a lot of the anger over the handling of the financial crisis. And you would talk to voters. And, like, they were just mad. The anger's so palpable. And I really feel like when you talk to voters that are that mad, they're just going to vote. Like, anger is just such a motivating force, especially when you're talking about actual policies that you think have affected your children. And I think Republicans see it. They're trying to capitalize on it. And I think Democrats also see it, and they're trying to mitigate what increasingly seems like they are afraid could be big losses over how they handle this.

SHEN: You're right. I can't tell you how many people I've spoken with, both parents and politicians and politicians who are parents, who say, well, they're the only voices that their children have, so they have to use it. And who can't understand that? I think we're all human beings, and we get it. But it just makes such a - it's such an intense moment.

KHALID: You know, I will say, as somebody who covers the White House, though, hearing how Democrats have responded to this, it doesn't feel like there's been a consistent strategy from Democrats. You've seen a number of Democratic governors across the country decide to lift mask mandates, right? And the White House is repeatedly asked about the CDC's guidance. And what we reporters are told is that, essentially, they are going to listen to the scientists. They're going to listen to the science. And I think I asked this the other day in the briefing because, at this point, it feels like the federal government is moving at a somewhat glacial pace compared to what's happening in other parts of the country. And it does seem like, to your point, Sue, Democrats, maybe at a local level, are trying to mitigate some of the consequences, it feels, of what they're seeing at a local level. But at a federal level, it doesn't seem like Democrats have had a very clear-cut explanation to provide parents as to why that continues to be a necessary component.

DAVIS: This is why I think it's an issue that particularly jams up the Democratic Party because they have, on the one hand, these kind of, like, independent Democratic-y (ph) kind of voters who are just really annoyed at how Democrats have handled it. And I think the one thing you hear, too, from Democrats - it's like, oh, if I suggest that our kids shouldn't wear a mask, I'm treated like I'm some kind of, like, anti-vax or crazy conspiracy theorist. Like, there's, like, a cultural isolation that I think some people feel from it. But then on the other hand, like, these moms that Catherine's talked to about - like, they're scared for their kids. They want to wear masks. It's like, if Democrats look like they're rolling back these mandates because of political concerns, I think you also risk angering all these people who still very much feel like they need to protect their kids because of the pandemic. And navigating that, I think, is much trickier for Democrats, especially, you know, from the top-down, as being the party, from the beginning of this pandemic, that was like, we will trust the science. We will trust public health officials. We'll keep your kids safe. Like, we're the party you can trust.

KHALID: It sounds like what you're saying is Democrats are essentially damned if they do and damned if they don't...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Change the rhetoric or their conversation or their policy outlook around COVID policies.

DAVIS: And I feel like the trust erosion has been greater for Democrats and the risk that that comes with politically than it has been for Republicans.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. Catherine Shen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

SHEN: Thank you so much.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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