When President Joe Biden announced his administration would require vaccines or weekly COVID tests for federal workers and businesses with 100 or more employees, Republicans pounced—as the saying goes—into fundraising mode.
The day after the announcement, the Republican National Committee began blasting out emails and text messages asking supporters to reach into their pockets to help fund a coming legal challenge against the supposedly “authoritarian” mandate.
“WE WILL SUE BIDEN TO END HIS AUTHORITARIAN VACCINE MANDATE,” the first of the emails read, claiming Americans risk losing their freedoms “like never before.”
“We’re calling on EVERY Patriot to step up and help fund our efforts. Are you going to join us or will you sit on the sidelines?” email asked, and suggested a $45 donation.
The solicitations went out almost daily for the next two weeks, and grew increasingly Orwellian in tenor. Texts attacked Biden as “UN-AMERICAN” and a “TYRANT,” and emails played up fears of “fascist” overreach.
“You MUST step up RIGHT NOW and fund our efforts against Biden to end this EVIL vaccine mandate or all will be lost!” read an email sent Sunday, Sept. 12. Another sent around the same time reminded recipients that “lawsuits like this are expensive,” and again suggested a $45 contribution would be sufficient to back the effort.
The solicitations ramped up the next week. Between Monday and Saturday, the GOP sent at least 10 emails riding the controversy, according to a database compiled by SendView.
The mandate is the latest front to open in the long-running political clash over how to manage the COVID pandemic, with many leaders, mostly Democrats, struggling to persuade the far-right Republican base to adhere to the guidance of public health officials. The clash has been supercharged on a local level with vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories, which have in turn fed on a paranoia in far-right circles about Democratic leadership. That rhetoric appears in the emails, pitting potential donors in an existential “with us or against us” battle against the Democratic administration over a policy that enjoys roughly 60 percent public support.
The RNC was not the only group threatening a courtroom challenge. In the days following the announcement, two dozen Republican attorneys general threatened litigation, decrying the mandate as “unconstitutional” executive overreach.
Most of that litigation, however, is still pending. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the committee won’t file its suit until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration implements the mandate in coming weeks and other state leaders are also waiting until then, when the official language will be set.
Biden, who in his announcement declared his patience with vaccine resistance had “worn thin,” has dismissed the legal threats, daring his challengers to “have at it” during a Sept. 10 visit to a D.C.-area middle school. “I am so disappointed that, particularly some Republican governors, have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities,” he said.
It’s not clear whether those challenges will meet with success. The order hangs on a rarely invoked workplace rule—temporary emergency powers allocated to OSHA if employees are in “grave danger.” But lawsuits, even doomed ones, have become a favorite political fundraising tactic for the GOP in the wake of the post-election court challenges from ex-President Donald Trump and an array of fringe MAGA allies. While those legal efforts failed, they also baited hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions. This summer, the RNC leaned on Trump’s new lawsuit against social media companies to rake in quick cash.
The anti-mandate emails appear to have dropped off after about two weeks, replaced with more standard fare such as promotions for Trump’s latest rally and broadsides against Biden’s immigration policies at the southern border. But the GOP saber-rattling may have proved intimidating enough—or inspirational—for the Democratic National Committee to respond. Only one DNC email in the SendView database references the mandate, and specifically in the context of the pending Republican lawsuits, asking recipients to take a poll to show their support.
The surge in fundraising pleas and rhetorical blitzes on vaccine “freedom” have only intensified this summer across the Republican Party—whether it’s among the heavyweights in conservative media, top contenders in GOP primaries ahead of the 2022 midterms, or prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill and the party’s leader, Trump.
One Fox News insider succinctly described the anti-COVID-mandate segments and vaccine-resistant commentary as “great for ratings.” Another current Fox employee said the numbers clearly demonstrated that there are vanishingly fewer subjects these days that get “our viewers more excited or engaged than” those kinds of segments.
As for the campaign trail, four different longtime Republican strategists told The Daily Beast that they have encouraged various 2022 GOP candidates who they’re each advising to lean heavily into anti-COVID-mandate messaging, viewing it as perhaps the winning issue with the conservative and Trump base of voters.
This strategy, however, comes at a time when the publicly available data show COVID-19 deaths and infections have exploded—including in months after the vaccines became widely available in the United States—in many areas that broke heavily for Trump in the last presidential contest. Even with the breakthroughs in safe, effective vaccinations, the U.S. is rapidly approaching 700,000 recorded deaths from the virus, with large weekly body counts still piling up in the country.
Trump’s political operation has also found the anti-mandate message as a handy fundraising tool. More and more frequently, Trump’s desire to claim credit for the production of the vaccines and to promote them has been steamrolled by his commitment to reassuring his fans that he champions their “freedoms” to refuse vaccination, masking, and mandates. To those who have spoken directly to the ex-president about this topic, Trump’s self-interested motivation is crystal clear: he doesn’t want to upset his base, and he’s told confidants who’ve urged him to launch a major vaccination push that too many of “my people” simply don’t want the shots.
But in the recent weeks of his post-presidency, Trump’s fundraising apparatus has sent out several appeals to donors and supporters declaring, “FREEDOM PASSPORTS > VACCINE PASSPORTS,” as one recent ask blared.
Naturally, Trump and his team are riding this pandemic-era trend so that they can sell T-shirts.
“BREAKING: Biden just MANDATED Covid vaccines,” the Trump operation mass-texted supporters on the evening of Sept. 16. “FIGHT BACK with President Trump’s new FREEDOM PASSPORT shirt.”
“Get yours NOW,” the sales pitch concludes.
—with additional reporting by Justin Baragona