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Zornio: Republicans own the bulk of pandemic blame, but Jared Polis’ missteps are aggravating his base

After thumbing his nose at several core party values, how far can Polis push some Democrats without losing their support?

As COVID-19 rages on, Gov. Jared Polis has finally been forced to call for federal assistance. It’s an unfortunate wake-up call after months of failing to enact robust preventative measures.

Now, although Polis’ calls for help are necessary, they feel a bit like too little, too late — after all, what we needed was to not get here in the first place.

Pundits will suggest that Polis’ hesitation to act was likely due to his entering an election year, as if that offers an acceptable excuse for not enacting critical public health policy. As the theory goes, voters on the whole might find mask mandates so objectionable that they wouldn’t turn out for him next November.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

Perhaps historically this might have been true. However these are not standard times, and the strategy of keeping statistics rosy and avoiding controversy only works if the problem stays largely out of sight.

For Polis, the problem hasn’t, and in fact it’s dominating news cycles as our hospital systems brace for failure. What once might have been a standard political play now reeks of political miscalculation coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding of the virus’ capabilities. 

Politically, Polis’ inaction complicates a once-clear Democratic narrative. It was easy to point fingers almost exclusively at conservatives for causing the lion’s share of the pandemic mishandling. After all, analysis after analysis shows a stark divide on vaccine and mask acceptance based on political party.

Overall, this still remains true, yet this responsibility is ever-so-slightly diluted without Democrats applying all tools in the toolbox. Where once stood an attack that cases are rising because folks like Rep. Lauren Boebert would rather tweet about Biden’s supposed flatulence than address Mesa County’s low vaccination rates, now Democrats must own that, at least in small part, their leaders didn’t enact full measures, either.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Surely, some voters would have disliked a return to preventive policies. But voters will increasingly mind losing access to hospitals, schools and businesses far more. This reality is placing Polis in hot water, particularly with some base Democratic voters who strongly feel that wearing a piece of cloth would have been far less impactful to them personally than overwhelming our institutions.

With midterms just around the corner, being able to keep the fingers pointed at Republicans for sole ownership of COVID-19 spread was crucial, yet Polis has doubled down and continues to muddy the narrative.

Notable drops in approval ratings already reflect voter uneasiness, with Polis’ ratings specifically having lowered as cases rise. As these polls were conducted prior to the current state of Colorado’s hospitals — which has only worsened — it’s reasonable to speculate that his approval ratings would be even lower to date. 

Particularly problematic is that this isn’t the first time Polis has ruffled feathers with his own party. It raises the uncomfortable question of how far he can go before fully alienating core supporters.

Among key frustrations remain the Democratic governor’s threat to veto a Democrat-led climate bill, participation in spreading grossly misappropriated information on air quality and support for Proposition 120 in Colorado’s recent election.

Add to that a well-timed zinger investigative report by ProPublica showing Polis aggressively pursued tax loopholes, and intra-party tensions with the first-time governor are flaring.

Many questions remain to be seen. Will it open Polis up for a primary? Arguably, it should, but in reality a primary challenger is unlikely to be successful as the incumbent can self fund in the tens of millions without batting an eye. 

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Will it be enough for Polis to lose in the general election, even though he beat the Republican last time handily? Eh. Probably not, but it’s certainly not helping, and if his actions continue he may depress some Democratic turnout. 

Whether or not it’s enough to lose the election remains unknown a year out, but for a man who has already registered the website domain JaredPolisForPresident.com, it’s a questionable move to ignore the voting base that got you where you are and could help get you where you want to go.

Appealing to the anti-mask crowd won’t win anyone a Democratic presidential primary — not even for hundreds of millions of dollars.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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