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Iowa’s election did not ‘validate’ the governor’s COVID-19 response

contributed photo Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at her news conference Thursday at the State Capitol.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is claiming the election results were a “validation” of her approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year, Iowans validated the direction of our state by expanding the majority in the Iowa House and maintaining the strong majority in the state Senate,” she said Thursday. “… In addition, it was a validation of our balanced response to COVID-19, one that is mindful of both public health and economic health.”

She said that with a straight face, as the pandemic is surging out of control in Iowa, setting new records almost daily for new infections, hospitalizations and deaths. She said it as two face-masked hospital executives stood by, preparing to plead for Iowans to consider exhausted health care workers and stretched hospital resources before they make their holiday gathering plans or decide to go maskless in public.

The governor is apparently under the impression that Iowans think it’s just fine that COVID-19 is raging unchecked through the state, with new cases more than doubling every two weeks, nearly 800 hospitalizations and dozens of deaths every week. One ongoing study has predicted that Iowa will run out of intensive care unit beds within a month if it doesn’t get infections under control.

She apparently thinks Iowans will be satisfied if she launches a public-information campaign to tell everyone, once again, that they really ought to wear masks when they go out in public, avoid gatherings, wash their hands, get a flu shot.

It’s not clear why Iowans will start paying attention to that when she’s demonstrated, over and over again, that she thinks it’s fine for people without masks to stand shoulder to shoulder by the thousands at political rallies and shout their germs into the air.

What’s really puzzling is why she thinks legislative elections had anything to do with Iowans’ view of the governor’s pandemic response. Reynolds wasn’t on the ballot — she’s not up for re-election until 2022. Iowa lawmakers have had nothing to do with the management of COVID-19 since they ended the 2020 session in June. They washed their hands of the pandemic (symbolically, since some didn’t see the point of all that hand sanitizer), gave almost blanket authority to the governor to deal with it, and fled.

The GOP legislative leadership has shown zero curiosity about how Reynolds is spending billions of dollars of federal coronavirus relief money. They haven’t asked the Legislative Oversight Committee to look into the $21 million in CARES Act money that the U.S. Treasury Department says was misspent on a software system that lawmakers themselves didn’t want to pay for.

Perhaps Reynolds is looking at the fact that Iowans gave President Trump their vote on Tuesday. That would be understandable — after all, Reynolds has taken a similar approach to Trump in terms of prioritizing the economy over public health and ignoring the advice of experts like the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has been urging a mask mandate in Iowa for more than a month.

But even the state’s vote for Trump doesn’t amount to an endorsement of COVID-19 management in Iowa. Exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool on Election Day (which included phone interviews of people who voted early or by mail), indicated that most voters who chose Trump weren’t really thinking about the pandemic.

The exit poll as published by the New York Times shows that 19 percent of voters said the coronavirus pandemic was one of the top five issues that mattered most in deciding how to vote for president. And 88 percent of those voters chose Joe Biden, while only 9 percent voted for Trump.

Voters were split on which candidate would better handle the pandemic. They were also split on a question of whether it was more important to contain the coronavirus even if it hurts the economy, or rebuild the economy now, even if it hurts efforts to contain the coronavirus. Those who prioritized the virus voted mostly for Biden; those who put the economy first voted mostly for Trump.

That’s not validation. It’s a demonstration that attitudes toward coronavirus are divided and not necessarily the main driver of Iowans’ choice for president. Voters may yet decide to hold Reynolds accountable for deciding that dozens of deaths a week are acceptable as long as the hospitals still have beds available.

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Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs.

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