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Vaccine Protesters Jeer Biden, House Republicans At N.H. State House

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Dan Tuohy / NHPR
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Protesters took to the State House plaza Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, to protest what they called government overreach in the form of a proposed vaccine mandate for certain employers by President Joe Biden.

Opponents to President Joe Biden’s new vaccine mandate filled the State House plaza Tuesday, waving signs and chanting through bullhorns.

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But the protesters didn’t limit their criticism to the president: They also hurled insults at Gov. Chris Sununu and State House Republican leaders, many of whom stood nearby through the jeering and appeared surprised by the disdain sent their way.

The protesters and the politicians who collided in front of the State House shared a common message: That Biden’s effort to increase vaccination via federal mandate was a massive government overreach. But the protesters’ chants of “Do Your Job” and “Where’s Sununu?” indicated the gulf between state Republican leaders -- the people charged with leading the state through the pandemic -- and many of the voters they might normally expect to win over.

“We’re out here to try to help you, and now you’re attacking us,” Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard yelled at the heckling crowd at one point.

This was not how Republican lawmakers intended things to go Tuesday.

GOP leaders in the New Hampshire House had scheduled a fairly ordinary political event for the morning: a press conference, in front of the State House, at which they planned to criticize Biden, and Democrats more broadly, for their response to COVID-19. Their message was delivered in fairly standard partisan rhetoric.

“I think you know as well as I do that the words of a president matter, but he can’t be bothered to attend a weekly briefing call,” said Deputy House Speaker Steve Smith.

But that event quickly collided with -- and was eventually co-opted by -- activists motivated by their own disagreements with pandemic restrictions and their demands for more extreme responses from lawmakers.

In a lot of ways, the protest -- which drew no visible police presence -- had the look and feel of a Tea Party rally circa 2010, just with anti-vaccine signs swapped in for anti-Obamacare ones. Some of the roughly 400 protesters came alone, some part of organized groups with names like Absolute Defiance and Reopen NH. Some wore Trump paraphernalia, and there were several QAnon T-shirts. People carried signs reading “I’ll die before I comply” and “COVID is not the worst of all evils.” There were people praying, and some wearing guns. And a good slug of them appeared to want to hear and something more than Republican leaders had to offer when it came to opposition to masks and vaccines.

As the jeering and yelling from the protesters escalated, Packard eventually took back the mic and tried to resettle the crowd, pleading for calm.

“We’re helping; we are trying to do everything we can,” Packard said. “You are yelling at the wrong people.”

Afterwards Packard told reporters the state could take legal action against the Biden vaccine mandate, but he believed Sununu would need to initiate that. Packard also declined comment -- with emphasis -- when asked about the heckling he and other House Republicans endured Tuesday.

But what the episode made clear is that navigating COVID policy is clearly a challenge for Republicans who control state government these days. And the organizers who have steered resistance to COVID policies promulgated by this Republican-led government have been canny: As the situation has changed so has the messaging. In the early days of the pandemic, it was against economic shutdown. Then it was opposed to school closures and mask requirements. Now. vaccines are the emphasis.

Of course, plenty of the Republican Party’s base, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, is hostile to anything that smacks of government coercion. And there is no Republican more on the hot seat over vaccines -- and with more power to act -- than Sununu.

For his part, Sununu declined to engage directly with protesters Tuesday. A spokesman for the governor pointed to his earlier statement that he’s “pro-vaccine” but also said he opposed Biden’s mandate and was working directly with fellow governors “to see how best to push back against this federal overreach.”

David Lheureux of Campton, who carried a combat rifle and Gadsten flag to the State House Tuesday, and who credits COVID restrictions with his political awakening, said Sununu is failing the state.

“We’ve had healthcare workers who have been struggling with this, and Sununu has been touring, doing PR stunts,” Lheureaux said. “All I’ve seen is pictures of him in pizzerias, in cookie places, getting ice cream. That guy is the governor. He is supposed to be leading the fight for our rights.”

Whether protests like this end up shifting actual policy at the State House is unclear. There will almost certainly be efforts by some conservative lawmakers to limit the government’s ability to intervene in a public health crisis. But it’s unlikely lawmakers will be doing anything until January, and their power to, for instance, invalidate a federal vaccine mandate would likely be limited.

But this kind of episode could mark a more lasting divide in the Republican Party. One relatively minor but noteworthy example of that came Tuesday: Republican Rep. William Marsh, a retired physician, announced he’s leaving the GOP because of House leadership’s role in the press conference. He’ll be caucusing with Democrats from now on.