On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s insistence that his campaign recommence holding massive rallies will bring him to the heart of the state with one of the highest increases in new COVID-19 infections in the country.
But in addition to the well-documented health risks of a crowded indoor event in a state where more than 2,500 new cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus were announced as recently as Thursday, the president’s appearance at a “Students for Trump” event on June 23 threatens the health not just of Arizona voters, but of the reelection chances of one of his staunchest allies—who may not even be attending.
Sen. Martha McSally, seeking reelection to serve the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term, already faces some of the steepest odds of any incumbent Republican in the country this cycle. Appointed to her seat by the state’s increasingly unpopular Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, McSally was blasted even by some fellow conservatives as having won a Senate seat as a “consolation prize” after losing against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, an original sin for which some Arizonans—including McCain’s family—have yet to forgive her.
McSally’s refusal to publicly take a side on numerous issues of major interest to voters in the state—her noncommittal response to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Thursday being a representative example—has added to the perception that she cares more about politics than policy.
But on the issue of Trump, McSally has been almost unwavering in her public support since her appointment, redirecting frustration with the president’s coronavirus response to condemn China’s role in the pandemic.
“I learned the day I entered the military, never trust a communist,” McSally told reporters in May when asked about reports that Trump had dismissed early warnings about the potential severity of the novel coronavirus. “China is to blame for this pandemic and the death of thousands of Americans.”
McSally, who has since turned that moment into a television advertisement, has hugged the president tightly despite his standing in Arizona (he is currently underwater among likely voters in the state) and reports that Trump himself is concerned that her poor polling numbers might reflect badly on him (McSally is likewise underwater among likely voters in the state).
That concern on the president’s part may explain why McSally has yet to be announced as joining the president at his Phoenix rally on Tuesday, as she did during his tour of a Phoenix-area N95 mask factory in early May. Asked whether the senator planned on attending the rally, and whether she felt that the event should be rescheduled in light of the skyrocketing coronavirus cases in the state, McSally’s Senate office referred The Daily Beast to her reelection campaign. The campaign, repeatedly asked the same questions, did not respond to requests for comment. The Trump campaign also did not respond to requests for comment.
McSally herself has held in-person campaign fundraisers in recent weeks, although nothing on the scale of the president’s scheduled rally.
“Donald Trump spent months ignoring experts, praising China’s response, and downplaying risks while Americans were getting sick. Now, Trump is making another political trip to Arizona, where cases are surging as a result of his failed leadership,” said Arizona Democratic Party chair Felecia Rotellini. “As president of the United States, Donald Trump should put public health before his own political agenda and postpone any large gatherings anywhere in the U.S. and, especially in Arizona where the number of reported cases is growing daily.”
With Arizona’s coronavirus outbreak—combined with its high population of at-risk elderly, uninsured and Latinx residents—making it one of the hottest spots in the nation, McSally has been similarly steadfast in her counterfactual insistence that the state is ready for business.
“We’re coming out of it,” McSally said in a livestream held by the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, adding that the coronavirus outbreak in Arizona “wasn’t as dire as a lot of other places.”
“We didn’t go like this, like a lot of places in the shutdown,” McSally said in the video, driving her hand down like a plane in freefall. “I think we went more like this,” the former Air Force pilot added, her hand at a less steep angle, “and so hopefully we can… have that V-shaped recovery.”
The issue of the president’s upcoming rally, however, is one that the senator can’t deny. The outbreak in Arizona is so severe that the state is running out of hospital beds, and local epidemiologists warn that the community spread from an indoor rally could exacerbate the situation—particularly as the cultural divide on wearing masks and social distancing has become a political one.
On June 15, more than 900 medical providers sent a signed letter to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, urging him to require the wearing of masks in public to prevent the spread of the virus, which he has so far refused to do.
“Since the reopening of Arizona’s economy, our health risk has drastically increased,” the letter stated. “The sad fact is that nothing has changed regarding COVID-19 since the Stay at Home Executive Order was put into effect on March 31. Since the Executive Order was lifted, many Arizonans believe something has changed, and it is somehow now safe to resume normal life. Sadly, this is far from the truth.”
The governor’s office responded to the letter by urging Arizonans to wear face coverings in public, but has not made such coverings required.
One Phoenix-based nurse practitioner treating COVID-19 cases told The Daily Beast that she’s “dreading” the two-week mark after Trump’s rally.
“Arizona is already a complete nightmare,” the nurse practitioner, who requested anonymity because medical staff at her hospital have been asked not to speak to the media about the outbreak, told The Daily Beast. “We don’t need any help from Trump.”
Meanwhile, McSally’s general election opponent is subtly highlighting his own scientific bona fides as an indication that he is prepared to deal with the pandemic—and with an administration that has insisted that the worst of the virus is over.
“When you’re commanding the space shuttle orbiting the earth at 25 times the speed of sound, you don‘t mess around when a problem comes up,” said Captain Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, in his latest online advertisement in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. “You work together to solve it, because lives are on the line.”
Part of not messing around, his campaign said, is not holding in-person events until the state is safe.
“Our number-one priority is the health and safety of the public,” said campaign spokesperson Jacob Peters. “Mark has been connecting with Arizonans virtually and through volunteering over the last few months. The campaign doesn’t currently have plans for in-person events in the near future.”