A tale of two Kentuckians: Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell diverge more on the coronavirus as cases in the state rise

Sen. Rand Paul, left, and Sen. Mitch McConnell

By Melanie Zanona and Manu RajuCNN

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul just got temporarily kicked off YouTube for an inaccurate tirade against masks. Sen. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has been airing ads that urge people to go out and get the vaccine.

The two Kentucky Republicans now perfectly exemplify the national divide over how to handle a deadly virus that is still ravaging the country — and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. McConnell has been one of the most consistent voices in the GOP when it comes to promoting health precautions, while Paul has become the face of the Republican resistance to Covid restrictions.

Of course, this is hardly the first time the Bluegrass State’s senators have been at odds. McConnell has built a reputation as a calculated and methodical tactician, whereas Paul, a libertarian-minded Republican, is known for his brand of rabble-rousing politics and has no qualms about being a loner in his own party. Just this week they split on supporting a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

But the duo’s latest divergence goes beyond politics or legislating styles: It’s a debate over public health. And while Paul has told CNN “I’m not anti-vaccine,” his message is threatening to directly undermine McConnell’s mission to protect the people of Kentucky and beyond — an objective that is deeply personal for McConnell, a polio survivor.

Meanwhile, the pandemic picture in their home state is starting to worsen. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said on Thursday that surging Covid-19 cases across the southern U.S. should be alarming to Kentuckians, because the state is following suit and hospitals are filling up.

“What we’re seeing, just to the south . . . ought to be ringing alarm bells throughout this commonwealth,” said Beshear. “We never thought we’d see ourselves at a point like that again.”

Despite their differences, McConnell and Paul have, at times, had a marriage of political convenience. After Paul stunned the political establishment by defeating McConnell’s hand-picked candidate in the 2010 Senate race, the two developed a bond after the senior senator counseled the tea-party conservative and gave him advice in navigating the choppy terrains during the tumultuous general election.

And in 2014, McConnell benefited from his alliance with Paul in beating back a primary challenger on his right. Two years later, McConnell endorsed Paul’s presidential bid. But the two have had their disputes — including in 2018 when Paul briefly caused a government shutdown over his demand for a vote on an amendment that McConnell wouldn’t allow.

On the coronavirus, their disagreements have been the most apparent. Early on, McConnell was preaching about the importance of wearing a mask, saying there should be “no stigma” about taking safety measures to help curb the virus.

By contrast, Paul, an ophthalmologist, was the lone senator who refused to wear a mask in the Capitol during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. Paul said that after contracting Covid-19, he was immune — though public health experts say it’s unclear how long antibodies last in people who have been infected by the virus.
Paul opposed a coronavirus aid package last year that McConnell helped negotiate. And as McConnell was campaigning on the 96-0 passage of the CARES Act that was approved by Congress in March 2020, Paul later told CNN he would have voted against it had he attended the vote (Paul missed the vote as he was isolating after contracting the virus at the time).

Now, as the Delta variant causes a spike in infections and vaccination rates remain low in red areas, frustrations — and finger-pointing — have started to erupt. Concerns have also started to grow about the emergence of “two Americas,” with red states in particular battling a new surge in cases as GOP governors refuse to reinstate safety protocols like mask wearing.
While some Republicans have jumped on the McConnell bandwagon in encouraging Americans to get the vaccine, many in the party are still railing against mask and vaccine mandates and trying to turn the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into a political punching bag.

And some GOP lawmakers, including Paul and controversial Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have even been suspended from social media platforms for spreading misinformation about vaccines and the virus.

Paul, however, said he’s wearing his suspension from YouTube like a “badge of honor.” He’s also sparred with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, during congressional hearings that have led to several viral moments.

And Paul was in the news this week for another coronavirus-related controversy: the Kentucky Republican revealed his wife in February 2020 purchased up to $15,000 in stock in Gilead Sciences, the maker of the antiviral drug remdesivir. The financial disclosure was more than a year late because the initial filing wasn’t properly transmitted, his office said.

In an interview last summer, Paul told CNN that he was not against vaccines. He’s also recommended in several media interviews that people get the shot. But Paul has also made clear he wouldn’t push people — particularly younger Americans — to get vaccinated, saying it was their choice.

“I’m not anti-vaccine,” Paul said. “They paint me as anti-vaccine. . . . I never said I was against vaccines. In fact, I’m a huge supporter and believer that we developed some medical miracles with a smallpox vaccine. The histories are just phenomenal: the polio vaccine.”
Paul added: “At the same time, we shouldn’t so believe in the state that you have to take it. . . . If someone is a little hesitant, can you not give them a couple months to try to make a decision on their own that it’s safe enough?”
For his part, McConnell hasn’t directly pushed back on the members in his own party who are spreading misinformation or bashing mask mandates. The thinking there is that the best way to counteract the anti-vaccine sentiment is just to keep preaching about the safety and efficacy of the shot, instead of picking a head-on fight with colleagues.

And McConnell has remained steadfast in that mission. He often talks up the importance of vaccines in floor speeches and press conferences. More recently, he took it a step further, using his own campaign funds to launch radio ads all across Kentucky pleading with residents to get their first dose.

“I can only speak for myself,” McConnell said at press conference in Kentucky this summer, when asked about anti-vaxxers. “I’ve been a big proponent of wearing a mask. I’ve been a big proponent of getting vaccinated, and I’ve tried, at least for myself, to say the things that I think people need to hear.”


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