Pandemic Politics: Red state governors are in trouble for their Covid leadership

Voters in Ward 3 vote on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020 at the Gypsy Hill Park Gym in Staunton.Dsc 9669

As President Trump dithered his way through the first months of the pandemic, it became clear that when it came to people’s daily lives, governors would be the ones with the power. In part, this was because Trump’s leadership was so confusing and chaotic that governors had no alternative but to step into the breach. But it was also because governors, not presidents, have authority over important parts of pandemic control—from quarantines, to mask rules, to vaccine distribution plans. Covid has not been much kinder to the 50 state governors than it has been to presidents. Trump’s Covid leadership was a major cause of his election loss and the continuation of the pandemic is a big part of President Biden’s recent decline in the polls.

So how are the nation’s governors doing during the pandemic and what might we learn from them?

The Covid States Project is a consortium of academics and pollsters who have been tracking the approval ratings of America’s governors throughout the pandemic. As the Appendix to this article shows, the pandemic has taken its toll on almost everyone. Between late April 2020 when the pandemic was in full swing and September of this year, approval ratings among governors have dropped from an average of 64% to an average of 45%. But in some states, the drop has been well above the national average. As Table #1 indicates, with two exceptions, the top 10 governors who have suffered the largest losses are Republican. Most of these governors have opposed masking, schools being shut down, quarantines, vaccine mandates, and tolerated anti-vaxxers. The real-world results have been horrific. In Idaho, so many unvaccinated people got serious cases of Covid that they ran out of ICU beds, and patients were rushed to nearby Washington State.

Table #1: 10 states where governors have suffered the largest losses in approval ratings during the pandemic.[1]



September 2021 Total Change

ID (R)

64 30 -34

OH (R)

81 49 -32

TN (R)

62 31 -31

TX (R)

61 32 -29

AR (R)

65 37 -28

AZ (R)

56 28 -28

KY (D)

79 51 -28

MS (R)

56 28 -28

AK (R)

61 34 -27

KS (D)

68 41 -27

Note: States identified in red with an ‘R’ in parentheses have Republican governors; states in blue with a ‘D’ in parentheses have Democratic governors.

Meanwhile, among the 10 states where governors have lost the least, seven governors are Democrats and only 3 are Republicans.

Table #2: 10 states where governors have suffered the smallest losses in approval ratings during the pandemic.



September 2021 Total Change

HI (D)

36 38 +2

SD (R)

43 41 -2

VT (R)

72 69 -3

CT (D)

66 62 -4

NJ (D)

65 60 -5

FL (R)

46 36 -10

VA (D)

59 49 -10

CO (D)

64 53 -11

IL (D)

63 52 -11

MI (D)

62 51 -11

Overall, Republican governors have lost an average of 21.96 points while Democratic governors have lost an average of 14.38 points. Montana, New York, Rhode Island, and Utah are excluded from these numbers because they changed governors during this period.

Whether these approval numbers will translate to electoral losses remains to be seen. The two premier contests next month are the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia. Historically, these two races are always heavily scrutinized for what they can tell us about how the public is reacting to events of the day. What we know so far is that in the two gubernatorial races coming up next month it is clear that “it’s the pandemic stupid.” In New Jersey, the incumbent governor, Phil Murphy, is running for re-election. He appears to be comfortably ahead of his Republican opponent and his approval ratings during the pandemic have dropped only 5 points. He still has, as of September, a 60% approval rating as the Appendix shows.

In Virginia, however, the race is much closer. Approval ratings of the incumbent Democratic Governor, Ralph Northam, have dropped 10 points to 49%, which is still better than the average drop of 14.38% for Democratic governors. But since Northam can’t run again, the Democratic candidate, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, is in a tight race with wealthy businessman and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. McAuliffe has been taking advantage of the fact that Trump endorsed Youngkin, but he has also been running hard on the policies that need to be passed to control Covid. Not too long ago, he announced a policy initiative entitled “Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers” and has spent time on social media and in campaign ads seeking to tie Youngkin to the Covid strategies that are popular amongst so many Republican governors. For his part, Youngkin is trying to change the subject to education, especially hot-button issues like critical race theory.

The elections this fall and next will tell us a great deal about Covid’s impact on politics. At first blush, the behavior of so many Republican governors seems self-destructive. Putting aside for the moment the fact that they are largely killing their own voters, Republican governors are suffering hits to their approval ratings, something no politician wants to see.

However, the far-right has taken hold of the Republican Party and turned everything from masks to vaccines into an assault on liberty. In most deep-red states, Republican governors don’t have to worry about a Democrat winning—they need to be worried about losing a Republican primary to an anti-vaxxer. Many pundits assume that the two high profile Republican governors, Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, have set their sights on the presidency and hope to inherit the Trump mantle in the Republican presidential primaries if he doesn’t run. This would explain their hardline positions on Covid. But both men say they are running for re-election in 2022 and both are in very bad shape for incumbent politicians. DeSantis’ approval rating is down to 36% and Abbott’s is even lower, at 32%. Losing a re-election race or deciding not to run because you are likely to lose are not good ways to catapult yourself to your party’s nomination.

Red-state governors are in trouble with majorities because they are pandering to a subset of voters in their party who have decided to equate what most voters see as public health common sense with an attack on liberty. If this keeps up, they may pay the political price.



[1] Data for Tables 1 and 2 comes from The Covid States Project Report #66: September 2021 update on executive approval, available at