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Republicans are looking to win over angry parents in November's elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden used his State of the Union address this week to call for a new chapter in the pandemic and a return to normal life.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses. We have the tools we need.

SHAPIRO: But many parents are not likely to forget how the past two years of COVID policies affected their kids. They are angry, and that could hurt Democrats this November. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has more.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Suburban Connecticut moms like Amelia Fogarty and Caroline Montero could be the Democratic Party's worst nightmare this year. Born and raised a Democrat, Fogarty switched parties and plans to vote Republican this November. It's cost her friendships and strained some family ties.

AMELIA FOGARTY: It's been really sad and very isolating, but I have stuck to my guns because I just - I feel very strongly in my heart that I know that this is not right.

DAVIS: This is mask mandates that, until this week, required their children to wear masks at school. Montero, a self-described independent moderate and occasional voter, is hyperengaged in politics for the first time in her life.

CAROLINE MONTERO: We had one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, and kids were getting vaccinated, and everyone was doing what they were told to do. And then nothing was changing, and people were getting frustrated.

DAVIS: They are part of a rising political tide of parents advocating for mask choice in schools that would leave it up to parents to decide if their kids should wear a mask. That view went against the Centers for Disease Control, which just last week rolled back guidelines calling for universal masking in schools for kids aged 2 and up. When they tried to talk to their local elected officials about possibly easing the mandate, they felt ignored by Democrats.

FOGARTY: Only the Republicans met with me.

DAVIS: Fogarty added this.

FOGARTY: I just feel like they are not listening to their constituents in any way, and I'm really frustrated and just done with the party, to be honest.

DAVIS: Republicans at the highest levels see a political opportunity to appeal to these angry parents, particularly white suburban parents. They're more likely than nonwhite parents to support ending mask mandates, according to public opinion polls. A majority of parents overall still support universal masking, according to a February CBS News poll. But 20% of liberals and over a third of moderates in the same poll said it should be optional. Republicans have advocated more than Democrats to roll back COVID-related mandates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently declared the GOP the party of parents on the Senate floor.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Republicans at the local, state and federal level are standing with the parents. We're going to keep fighting against these disruptions to family life caused by rules and mandates that are not at all based in science.

DAVIS: Veteran Republican strategist Liesl Hickey says mask mandates are just one part of why angry parents will be a critical voting bloc in what she believes will be a red tsunami come November.

LIESL HICKEY: There is a horrific child mental health crisis, there is severe learning loss and there is this just general disruption of children's precious childhood. And parents are looking for someone to hold accountable. I mean, parents have a long memory when it comes to how their children have been treated.

DAVIS: Lifelong Democrat Justin Spiro doesn't have kids, but he works with them as a social worker at a New York City high school. He says the mask mandate took a toll on his students. He was furious when Democrats in the New York state Senate recently blocked a Republican bill to roll it back.

JUSTIN SPIRO: Maybe there's no politician for me, right? Maybe I need to write someone in. I guess if there was a more centrist candidate or party, that might be the way for me to go.

DAVIS: Top Democrats see the warning signs. New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is running House Democrats' campaign operation. On MSNBC, he cheered his Democratic governors' recent decision to end mask mandates for businesses. New York's school mask mandate was lifted this week.

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SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: We as Democrats should not be, out of some sense of correctness, falling in love with mandates when they're not necessary. We should get rid of them as quickly as we responsibly can.

DAVIS: With the pandemic entering its third year, parents like Debbie are exhausted by it all. She's a mom of two and lives in suburban Seattle. She asked NPR not to use her last name so she could speak candidly about her political views. Her family has diligently followed COVID protocols, like wearing masks, throughout the pandemic.

DEBBIE: It's like you either made the sacrifices and other people didn't, or you didn't make the sacrifices and other people are expecting you to. And everyone is just tired of feeling like they're on the wrong side of something.

DAVIS: A lifelong Democrat, Debbie told NPR she considers herself an independent now.

DEBBIE: That doesn't mean I've become more conservative. What that means is I am so appalled (laughter) at how the Democrats are performing, I don't think I could even be a part of it anymore.

DAVIS: Debbie doesn't believe many parents like her will vote Republican this year. She believes it's more likely they just won't vote. Either way, that's good news for Republicans. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIEVES SONG, "BLOOD POETRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.