With Some Voters ‘Ready to Move On,’ Democrats Search for New Message on Virus

Some Democratic officeholders, like Mr. Wolf in Pennsylvania, say they’re ready to defend their actions, noting that by closing businesses and schools they slowed the spread of the coronavirus and saved lives. The shift in tactics now is a response to widespread vaccination, not politics, they say.

But Republican candidates have vowed to make the earlier shutdowns central in races from school board to governor to the Senate.

“They will pay the price in the next election,” said Lou Barletta, a Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania who blames Democrats, rather than the virus, for damage to businesses and loss of learning. “Nobody’s going to forget businesses who couldn’t open again or people who lost their jobs. That doesn’t get erased from memory. Not to mention a year’s education was stolen away from our children.”

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in November as a Republican was fueled in part by parents fed up with school closures and mask mandates for their children. Around the country, long-term school closures, which disproportionately occurred in Democratic-run states and cities, have turned off even some progressive voters.

Kim McGair, a lawyer and a normally staunch Democrat in Portland, Ore., said she felt “utterly betrayed” by her party, which she believes abandoned parents and students. “I will not vote for a Democrat who was silent or complicit on school closures, which is the vast majority of them here,” Ms. McGair said. But she also cannot picture herself casting a ballot for a Republican, a situation she describes as being “politically homeless.”

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, imposed some of the nation’s strictest stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic. Angry protesters who waved Tea Party flags at the State Capitol in April 2020, while former President Donald J. Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” were one of the first signs of politicization of the pandemic.

Ms. Whitmer, facing another deadly surge of the virus in her state and a tough re-election fight this fall, was pressed recently about why she hadn’t issued new statewide orders. Her response was defensive, but telling: “Like what?” she said to a Detroit TV interviewer. The existence of vaccines meant that the “blunt tools” used in 2020 to fight the pandemic were not needed, the governor said.