New Jersey Republicans struggle to find cohesion on vaccines as Covid cases mount

New Jersey Republicans are stuck between a shot and a virus.

As national Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana reverse course and take up the flag for lagging immunization efforts, New Jersey’s GOP leaders have struggled to present a cohesive front in messaging their support for bringing up the state’s vaccination rate.

“It’s impossible to deny that some members of the [state] Republican Party have not been effective messengers,” Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said in an interview. “I don’t know how much consequence there is to that, but to not admit it is to be disingenuous.”

While New Jersey has vaccinated 76 percent of its eligible population and the state ranks among the best in the U.S. on its immunization effort, public polling has consistently identified Republican voters among the groups more likely to be opposed to getting a shot. That leaves little wiggle room for GOP candidates who need to play to their base while seeking statewide office in deep blue New Jersey, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million registered voters.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli has made vaccine freedom, and the creation of new avenues for parents to exempt school-age children from immunizations against everything from measles to polio, a focal point of his campaign, even amid a resurgence of Covid-19.

New Jersey is reporting more than twice as many new daily Covid-19 cases as it was two weeks ago. Hospitalizations, though far from the heights they reached last spring or over the winter, are up by around 55 percent since the start of July.

While Ciattarelli, a former member of the General Assembly, widely broadcast his vaccination status — he held up a sign saying “I’m #OneStepCloser to: ‘Hugging my 89-year-old Mom!’” after receiving his first shot in April — his active courting of the anti-vaccine movement comes as other leaders in his party have started to call for shots in arms.

“Get the damn vaccine,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said in an interview, adding that he hadn’t heard the entirety of Ciattarelli’s comments on the subject. “I can only speak as the Assembly Republican leader. To me, you should absolutely, 100 percent get the vaccine. Any other messaging, to me, is wrong.”

Last week, Ciattarelli met with a political action committee launched by “medical freedom” activists who helped kill childhood immunization legislation early last year. NJ Health Innovation PAC, which has already endorsed Ciattarelli, previously backed a Democratic acolyte of anti-vaccine propagandist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and has hosted rallies protesting Covid-19 immunization policies at New Jersey colleges.

On Tuesday, Ciattarelli doubled down during an appearance on Philadelphia radio station WPHT, saying he’s concerned about “the direction things are going for vaccines — the Covid-19 vaccine for children, which I don’t support.”

Improving soft vaccination rates among college-aged adults and eligible children — Pfizer’s two-dose regimen received emergency use authorization for children aged 12 to 15 earlier this year — has been a major priority of Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration with schools preparing for a return to in-person instruction.

“Jack has been very public about himself getting vaccinated and encouraging others to do so, but he also supports parental and personal choice as it pertains to healthcare decisions,” Ciattarelli’s campaign said in a statement.

That’s a difficult line to straddle. After the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week calling for indoor masking in areas with “substantial” viral transmission — a description that applies to most of New Jersey’s population centers — Ciattarelli used his interview with WPHT to cast blame on the same constituency he’d met with less than a week earlier.

“Why are we being penalized or punished, if you will, for those who have not been vaccinated?” he said. “Here’s what’s going on right now with the Delta variant — the hospitalizations, 99 percent of which are people who are unvaccinated. That’s the choice they made. … But I don’t like the idea of punishing or inconveniencing people who have been vaccinated.”

To be sure, there’s a loud contingent within the state’s GOP that’s actively opposed to vaccination or any Covid-19 requirement writ large. Sen. Mike Testa (R-Cumberland), who served as co-chair of former President Donald Trump’s New Jersey campaign, stated publicly that he wouldn’t get a shot and cast doubts on their effectiveness.

One of Ciattarelli’s opponents in the Republican primary, Hirsh Singh, dropped out of a planned debate hosted by NJ PBS for refusing to comply with the station’s Covid-19 safety protocols.

Even hardliners within the state GOP, such as state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, have started to soften their rhetoric.

Pennacchio (R-Morris), who on the Senate floor once compared childhood immunization requirements to “state-sponsored eugenics,” said he thought vulnerable residents, such as the elderly or those with co-morbidities, should seek out the shot. (He remains opposed to mandatory vaccinations for children, saying it should be up to parents).

“Why are we politicizing this? Does it really matter if you’re an R or a D?” Pennacchio said in an interview. “Unfortunately, this issue was politicized to the detriment of our community.”


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