Last week, Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) was targeted by Republicans regarding COVID-19 deaths in Colorado’s nursing homes.
He is the most recent of a series of Democratic governors to receive the same or similar accusations.
An ad posted on Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown’s Twitter page brands Polis as the “Cuomo of the West.”
Brown has called for a bipartisan investigation of Polis’ administration.
The video draws a direct comparison to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Earlier this year, Cuomo faced a national scandal after the discovery that his administration had actively concealed COVID-19’s death toll in New York’s nursing homes. His actions, plus a series of accusations of sexual harassment, made him a pariah of both Democrats and Republicans and left the future of his political career in question.
Cuomo had faced criticism during the early months of the pandemic for requiring nursing homes to take hospital patients with coronavirus. Republicans have blamed this decision for New York’s above-average mortality rates.
Polis is not the first governor to be compared to Cuomo. Following the revelation that Cuomo falsified data, Republicans were quick to accuse Democratic governors across the country of similar misconduct.
For instance, in March, the National Review, a prominent conservative publication, gave Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) a similar title to Polis: “The Andrew Cuomo of the Midwest.”
Like Cuomo, Whitmer instructed nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients. While Republicans cite a lack of transparency, nursing home deaths in Michigan account for 33% of the state’s total deaths, below the national average of 39%.
“The … allegations are shameful political attacks based in neither fact nor reality. Our top priority from the start has been protecting Michiganders, especially seniors and our most vulnerable,” said Robert Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer. “Remember, the entire reason the virus spiraled out of control across the country is because the Trump Administration never got its arms around the pandemic.”
Conservatives have called for an investigation into several other Democratic governors, including Ralph Northam (D-VA), (“joining the ranks” of Cuomo, say conservatives); Phil Murphy (D-NJ), (“Headline: Republicans Use Cuomo’s Nursing-Home Woes Against Murphy”); Tom Wolf (D-PA), (Wolf “basically mimicked” Cuomo, says Republican.); and Gavin Newsom (D-CA), (Newsom did “just what Andrew Cuomo did,” says conservative.).
In each case, the accusations invoked a direct comparison to Andrew Cuomo’s scandal. Of those four, three are governors whose offices are up for election this year: Virginia and New Jersey via normal elections and California with a recall. The Pennsylvania governor’s race is both competitive (Wolf is term-limited.) and seen as a top Republican priority given the state’s importance for the next presidential election.
The attacks on Polis follow a report by Colorado Public Radio two weeks ago, which focused on the handling of COVID-19 policy for nursing homes this winter. The report found that from November 2020 to January 2021, the death toll across Colorado’s nursing homes spiked upwards, reaching double the national average.
According to the article, the structures Colorado had put in place proved inadequate in the face of the third wave of COVID-19. With the state testing lab overloaded, Colorado made a contract with Curative, Inc., a California-based startup, to provide COVID testing for nursing homes. Curative’s procedures, according to CPR’s reporting, were riddled with inaccuracies, producing numerous false positives and false negatives.
Read CPR’s Article: How Colorado Caught COVID: The Third Wave
While Colorado experienced a drastic amount of nursing home deaths this winter, it is far from unique. During the 2021 holiday season, Colorado was one of many states to see a major uptick in fatalities at long-term care facilities, likely due to loosened visiting restrictions across the country. Colorado’s death rates were surpassed by North Dakota and South Dakota, according to data from the CDC, which Fox 31 cited in its article.
Both North and South Dakota are run by Republican governors. No Republican in either state has called for an investigation of either Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) or Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD).
In the wake of CPR’s story, Colorado Republicans took the offensive.
In a recent tweet, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) said that Polis “fumbled the ball worse than Cuomo.”
The scope of the accusations is worth examining, especially in comparison with those against Cuomo. Polis is accused of evading the issue; his administration has been reluctant to comment when asked about the spike in nursing home deaths. In contrast, Cuomo’s scandal came from him actively falsifying the data to appear more successful than he was.
Republicans also claim that Polis misguidedly focused his attention on small businesses, rather than directing necessary resources to long-term care facilities.
“Jared Polis kept coming out in those press conferences and saying, we’re having a spike … the numbers are up, and he blamed small businesses for that,” said talk host Jimmy Lakey in an interview with Kristi Burton Brown. “He blamed restaurants, he shut down restaurants and made waiters and waitresses and wait staff and restaurant owners lose their opportunities for a happy, merry Christmas. … Seems like maybe that spike was coming from nursing homes, because there was never proof that it was coming from a restaurant.”
This echoes a similar accusation leveled against Governor Northam. In March, Virginia Republicans lambasted him for testing more incarcerated people than nursing home patients.
However, the CDC notes that prisons are a potential hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. It recommends that anyone in a correctional facility be tested regularly.
Similarly, the CDC found a strong correlation between restaurants and COVID-19. Adults who tested positive were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant prior to contracting the coronavirus. With this in mind, Polis’ closure of restaurants seems more justified; had he not done so, it is likely that a larger spike in infections would have been the result.
More uniquely, Republicans have accused Polis of giving a COVID-testing contract to a prominent Democratic donor. The implication of this attack is that Jared Polis is guilty of cronyism, covertly distributing favors to his political allies.
Colorado Republicans have been unable or unwilling to get their story straight on this matter.
In her interview with Jimmy Lakey last Wednesday, Brown claims that “The company that [the Polis administration was] using for testing was actually funneled to the Polis administration by a major Democrat donor, who had donated millions to Democrats across the nation, and who has specifically donated to Jared Polis’ campaign to be first elected governor.”
However, the earlier attack ad claims that “Jared Polis handed away responsibility to a Democratic donor’s testing company.”
While the verbiage is similar, this version implies that the unnamed donor owned Curative, Inc. If that were true, it would lend greater credence to Republican cries of corruption.
The donor in question is likely Gary Lauder, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist who frequently stays at his family home in Aspen. While Lauder does not own Curative, Inc., his firm, Lauder Partners LLC, did invest in Curative in March of last year.
According to The Gazette, Lauder recommended the startup to Kacey Wulff, who was Polis’ senior advisor for COVID-19 response at the time. Wulff forwarded Curative’s information to Sarah Tuneberg, then the leader of containment and testing strategy for the Colorado Department of Public Health.
This came at a time when Colorado was struggling to bring its COVID-19 testing capacity up to the necessary scale within a short timeframe. Curative offered tests that could not only be widely delivered and collected but could also be self-administered without the need for a trained health practitioner.
“[Curative was] well vetted. They had an incredible support team and incredible resources that we vetted deeply. I talked to many states that had used them and other municipalities,” Tuneberg told The Gazette. “I honestly don’t care what the CEO does or how old the CEO is. I want to know can they get me supplies? Can they deliver in the turnaround time? Can they meet our standards? We looked at all of that, and it was the right fit.”
The startup also supplied COVID tests for numerous other states, including Texas and Florida.
The information currently available is not enough to claim the Polis administration had a conflict of interest in contracting Curative. For this reason, Republicans have apparently been careful not to directly say that such a conflict exists. In her interview with Jimmy Lakey, Kristi Burton Brown is quick to correct herself by saying it is only a “potential” conflict of interest.
Instead of making the claims outright, Republicans say things like “we need to investigate it, just to be sure.” From there, their followers can connect the dots for themselves.
“Companies and investors coming to politicians, wanting them to buy their services or whatever, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong there,” said Dan Caplis, a conservative host at Denver’s Talk Station. “But I’m saying there’s a very serious question about serious wrongdoing by our governor.”
But questions are not inherently apolitical. While the GOP claims a moral high ground, they have a lot to gain from blowing the issue up in the media.
Burton Brown openly touts her efforts to do just that. In her recent GOP Chairwoman’s Update video, she talks about her time spent “spreading the word about what Jared Polis did to nursing homes.”
“One thing we’ve been very focused on this week is hitting on Jared Polis for his scandal on the nursing homes during COVID,” says Burton Brown. “I’ve been on multiple radio stations as well as TV talking about Jared Polis covering up what went on from November to December of 2020, and likely before that as well.”
With glaringly similar attacks on Democrats’ nursing home policy having happened across the nation, the calls for a bipartisan investigation look more like partisan opportunism taken wholesale from a national GOP playbook. Taking cues from their peers, Colorado Republicans have weaponized nursing home deaths in order to gain a political edge.
Prior to his torrent of scandal, Andrew Cuomo had a reputation as a Democratic media darling; after it was found that he had falsified data, he was denounced from both sides of the aisle. While calls for his resignation have faded, it’s unclear if he will run for reelection, his political reputation having taken a serious hit. Having found a weak point in the Democratic party’s armor, Republicans are taking every opportunity to chain other governors to Cuomo’s sinking ship.
“Every death due to COVID-19 is a tragedy and represents a mother, a father, a grandparent that’s not coming home and not coming to the Fourth of July barbecue and for the GOP to try to score cheap political points off of their tragedy is frankly disgusting,” Polis’ office said in a statement to Fox 31.
Make no mistake: the deaths in Colorado’s long-term care facilities this winter were tragic, and some may have been avoidable in hindsight. But the conclusion of the report that sparked this frenzy pointed in a different direction than Republicans want to go.
“The history of Colorado’s response to the global pandemic is not a story of widespread malfeasance or corruption,” reported Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus. “It is instead a story of a lack of planning and preparation forcing difficult choices that went wrong.”
At the same time, Colorado’s tragic loss is far from a unique one, so it’s fair to question what Republicans really mean when they say that they are “just asking questions.”
“The only thing that matters is the truth, regardless of the political implications,” said Kyle Kohli, director of Compass Colorado, in his interview with Dan Caplis.
And if that truth is politically expedient for the GOP, all the better.