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Essential Politics: Biden steps into the growing battle between red states and blue cities

Ron DeSantis stands at a microphone.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody treatment site in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
(Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)

The four years of Donald Trump‘s presidency saw recurring battles between red and blue states — Texas and California led opposing coalitions that faced off in the Supreme Court over the survival of the Affordable Care Act, for example, and similar lineups of states battled over immigration policy, climate change and religious liberty.

While those sorts of interstate disputes have continued, a new battleground has emerged during President Biden‘s first year — intrastate disputes pitting Democratic and Republican minorities against their states’ dominant parties.

In California, the effort to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office can best be understood as an effort by the state’s beleaguered red regions to use the arcane process of a recall to gain the statewide victory they have been unable to achieve during regular elections.

And Texas and Florida have seen a growing revolt by officials in blue cities against Republican governors who have tried to block vaccination and masking requirements to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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That conflict escalated sharply this week as the Biden administration entered the fray, threatening to use federal power to back up local officials in fights with Republican governors, especially Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas.

“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” Biden declared on Wednesday as the Education Department publicly aired the possibility of suing states that try to block local schools’ mask mandates.

An escalating fight

For most of the opening months of Biden’s tenure, the White House sought to play down disputes with DeSantis, Abbott and other Republicans. Even as the rhetoric heated up earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that “our war is not on DeSantis, it’s on the virus, which we’re trying to kneecap.”

Several factors have led to a more open confrontation, some political, others substantive.

It’s probably no coincidence that the escalation comes as the administration deals with a crisis in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have struggled to evacuate potentially tens of thousands of American citizens as well as Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, news organizations or civil society groups. White House officials know they’ll be dealing with horrific images from Kabul for days, if not weeks, and while they can’t change the subject, they can introduce a competing story line.

But actions by the contending players in Texas and Florida also played an important role. With schools now open and hospitals in both states buckling from the Delta-variant wave of illness, Democratic-majority metropolitan regions are increasingly pushing back against state limits on their responses.

As of Friday, four of the five largest school districts in Florida, including Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest district in the country, had voted to defy DeSantis and enforce a mask mandate.

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In late July, the governor issued an executive order that barred school districts from requiring masks if parents object.

School districts in the Houston, Dallas and San Antonio areas have similarly tried to enforce mask rules despite orders from Abbott. The governor at least temporarily backed down Thursday after losing a round in the Texas Supreme Court, which allowed lawsuits by some of the school districts to continue.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey threatened to withhold some state assistance from school districts that require masking.

“Parents are in the driver’s seat, and it’s their right to make decisions that best fit the needs of their children,” Ducey said in a statement. “Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t.”

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At least eight Republican-controlled states have laws or executive orders that ban school districts from requiring masks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students and teachers wear masks in the classroom.

The administration has a couple of tools to support school districts that defy state orders: Biden suggested that the federal government could supply money directly to school districts to replace aid if states try to cut off funds. And Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Wednesday that his department could use its authority to enforce civil rights laws to block governors from acting against school districts.

“The department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally,” Cardona said in a statement.

States that try to ban mask mandates are “needlessly placing students, families and educators at risk,” the statement said.

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The department has sent letters to several red states, including Texas and Florida, putting them on notice that their policies could violate federal law.

The legal path Cardona outlined is a convoluted one: The Education Department would first have to launch an investigation and then, if it found a violation, could threaten sanctions against states. But long before that, a federal civil rights investigation would crank up the potential cost for Republican governors who continue to push the fight.

Politically, however, the argument over masks plays to both sides’ core supporters.

Overall, Biden has the majority behind him. A poll by YouGov for the Economist, for example, found American adults favored a mask requirement in schools 52% to 37%, with 17% unsure.

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That overall support, however, is complicated by a striking partisan divide. Democrats supported requiring masks in schools, 82% to 7%, while Republicans opposed the idea 60% to 26%, the poll found.

A poll by Ipsos for the Axios website found even broader majority support for requiring students, staff and teachers to wear masks in schools, and also found a sharp divide by party.

For Abbott, who faces right-wing opposition to his bid for a third term in 2022, and DeSantis, who has been looking past his own reelection to a possible presidential bid in 2024, keeping Republican voters united behind them outweighs the majority opinion, at least for now. Opposition to mask mandates brings together the party’s libertarian faction and its dominant Trump wing, two constituencies that Republican officeholders are loath to cross.

The Ipsos poll pointed to a limit on that GOP consensus — majorities in both parties rejected the idea of withholding money from schools that enforce mask mandates. That suggests Ducey may have maneuvered himself into a dead end on that idea. DeSantis has also threatened to cut off salaries of school officials who defy him.

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For Biden, the political imperatives are straightforward. His efforts to keep the coronavirus under control have provided a relative point of strength all year. Administration officials have made clear that they believe the public will largely judge Biden on that issue and on the economy, subordinating most other topics.

Aligning himself with urban parents who believe mask requirements are key to safe schools for their kids is an easy call.

How far this confrontation will go likely will depend a lot on the Republican governors. How much political mileage do they believe they can gain by running against their states’ major urban areas?

If they decide they want a fight, the Biden administration likely will be happy to provide one.

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The Afghanistan crisis

Republicans have started referring to the evacuation from Kabul as Biden’s “Saigon moment” — a reminder of the images of helicopter evacuations as the Vietnam War reached its end in 1975. Biden’s defenders dispute the analogy, but it’s worth noting that then-President Ford‘s standing with the public improved in the months after the withdrawal, according to Gallup’s polling.

That’s not to say that Americans liked what they saw on their television screens, but, rather, that events overseas — even dramatic ones — often don’t have a huge impact on how the public views the president.

Anti-Taliban protests broke out this week in several Afghan cities, Marcus Yam in Kabul and Tracy Wilkinson reported.

What went wrong for the U.S. in Afghanistan? Wilkinson looked at the two-decade history since the American invasion in 2001.

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Back then, California’s Rep. Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the Afghanistan war. Now, as Sarah D. Wire reported, the congresswoman from Oakland is having a moment of vindication.

How about the rest of the state’s huge congressional delegation? Wire, Meena Venkataramanan and Erin B. Logan looked at where California lawmakers stand on the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Vice President Kamala Harris touted her role on Afghanistan policy. Now she owns it, too, Noah Bierman wrote.

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The latest on the recall election

Could Newsom lose even if he beats the recall? Mark Barabak looked at how a narrow win could leave the governor politically weakened.

Vote on both questions on the ballot? Vote on just one question? Vote yes? Vote no? Democrats, Republicans, independents — everyone has an opinion on how to vote in the recall. Madalyn Amato catalogued their views.

The Republican side of the recall has resembled a primary, with the leading GOP candidates trying to differentiate themselves, Faith Pinho wrote, examining their debate Thursday in San Francisco.

At a debate in Sacramento earlier in the week, a private investigator tried to serve a subpoena on John Cox, the unsuccessful GOP candidate against Newsom in 2018, Pinho reported. Cox has been sued by political consultants who worked for him in that race. They say he owes them thousands of dollars.

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Republican talk-show host Larry Elder, who has led the pack in recent polls, skipped the debates.

Newsom has several vulnerabilities in the race. As Patrick McGreevy reported, one is the state’s broken unemployment system.

In January, the governor turned to Blue Shield of California to oversee a large part of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program. As Blue Shield steps back from its vaccine role, analysts disagree over what impact it had, Melody Gutierrez reported.

As the recall fight continues, there’s a showdown coming in the state Legislature over a plan to split some single-family lots for more homes, Ari Plachta reported. The so-called duplex bill is the latest effort in the Legislature to ease the path toward building more homes in the state.

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The latest from Washington

Biden on Wednesday outlined his plan for COVID-19 booster shots, as Eli Stokols and Del Wilber reported.

Don Lee examined one of the major economic questions to come out of the pandemic. Many women put careers on hold. Now large numbers of women are returning to the labor force, but will their earnings and prospects for advancement recover?

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