Arizona’s Virus Recovery Fails to Boost GOP’s Election Prospects

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In just two months, Arizona went from global Covid-19 hot spot to a model of Sunbelt recovery. Republican Governor Doug Ducey led the turnaround by rejecting his initial embrace of President Donald Trump’s virus skepticism.

Ducey’s pivot has slowed the virus, at least for now, but it hasn’t spared his fellow Republicans from the backlash against the president’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed 4,771 state residents so far.

Arizona, the land of U.S. Senate conservative icons Barry Goldwater and John McCain, has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate exactly once in almost seven decades — Bill Clinton in 1996. But Joe Biden leads Trump by several percentage points in most polls. And Democratic Senate nominee Mark Kelly holds a double-digit lead over sitting Republican Senator Martha McSally, whom Ducey appointed after McCain died.

McSally, who has closely aligned herself with Trump, is considered the most vulnerable incumbent Republican senator in the November election. The Arizona race is pivotal for any chances of Democrats overturning the GOP’s 53-47 majority in the chamber.

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“It’s fair to say that the governor’s efforts to address issues surrounding Covid-19 have made Republicans less vulnerable to that issue at the local level,” said Paul Bentz, public opinion research and strategy head for HighGround, a political strategy firm. “But it doesn’t protect them against the vulnerability and concerns that surround the president.”

In late March, Ducey signed a one-month stay-at-homeexecutive order. After extending it, though, he reversed himself and announced plans to reopen some businesses the day before Trump visited May 5. The governor, who has said politics doesn’t guide his decisions, was excoriated by the mayors of Phoenix and Tucson after he initially barred them from imposing mask mandates.

Spiraling Sickness

The reopening was premature, said Will Humble, who led the state’sDepartment of Health Services from 2009 to 2015. Cases began rising again May 25, and Ducey reclosed some businesses June 29.

A week later, Arizona had far more new Covid-19 cases per million residents -- about 3,300 -- than any other U.S. state or foreign country, according to a New York Timesanalysis.

Kelly’s standing in Senate-race polls rose with the caseload. His lead hovered around 3 to 6 percentage points ahead of McSally in March. On June 3, when case numbers began increasing exponentially, a Fox News poll found Kelly was 13 points ahead.

He seized on Ducey’s handling of the pandemic and the timing of the state’s reopening. “Arizonans recognize that too often during this crisis we’ve been a step behind, and it’s put us in a worse spot in slowing the spread of the virus,” Jacob Peters, a Kelly campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

Since the seven-day average increase of new cases hit 5.4% on June 23, it’s been on a consistent decline and stood at 0.3% on Monday, when the state reported 311 new cases for a total count of 198,414.

Stay-at-home orders and mask ordinances have driven down the numbers, said Joe Gerald, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s medical school.

At a news briefing last week, Ducey said the most recent data are cause for optimism, with the state’s percent of positive test results trending downward and the number of intensive care beds filled by Covid-19 patients at its lowest since late May.

Clawing Back

Ducey appointed McSally to fill McCain’s seat after she lost her campaign for the Senate in 2018. It’s unclear whether his success in controlling the outbreak will help her in her latest bid. An Aug. 11 Emerson College poll showed Kelly leading by 11 points, though another released the same day by OH Predictive Insights found his lead had shrunk to 5 points.

McSally’s campaign has focused on anti-Biden sentiment and argued that Chinese investment in a company Kelly co-founded leaves him unable to hold the country accountable.

Kelly’s campaign has rebutted McSally’s allegations, calling her strategy a “Republican ‘soft on China’ playbook.” Kelly has publicly criticized China’s lack of transparency surrounding the pandemic, his campaign notes.

So far, Republicans haven’t touted Ducey’s virus response. Instead, they’re pushing themes that many Arizonans have traditionally supported, including immigration controls.

But the GOP has failed to secure independent voters, who compose about a third of the state’s electorate, Bentz said. The Aug. 4 primaries showed them voting mostly Democratic, he said, though there’s time for Republicans to regain their support by November.

For now, Bentz said, the president’s virus response is driving independents toward the Democrats.

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