Fear of the novel coronavirus has gripped every state in the country, and with good reason. But with an enormous population of retirees, people without insurance, Latinos and Native Americans—all of whom have proven to be especially at risk to the virus and its complications—the state of Arizona stands as particularly vulnerable to the pandemic that has claimed nearly 70,000 lives and shut down the nation’s economy.
For Sen. Martha McSally, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, the risk posed by the pandemic also has potential political ramifications—particularly after President Donald Trump chose Arizona as the first step in a tour intended to prove that from testing to treatment to economic recovery, “it’s all working out fine.”
“I look forward to joining President Trump tomorrow in Arizona to visit Honeywell who stepped up in a big way to produce N-95 masks for our frontline health care heroes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” McSally said in a statement ahead of the trip, noting that she will “have the opportunity to speak to the president about the importance of Arizona’s small businesses, cross border commerce, tribal communities, and infrastructure needs as we endure this crisis.”
Even as Trump has liberally handed out ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits as grace-and-favor benefits like baronies in Tudor England, no other Republican has been gifted with the reception that McSally will be on Tuesday. The senator will be hitching a ride on the first Air Force One flight to depart the nation’s capital since March 28, destined for a state that’s essential to Trump’s re-election plans. McSally will also join Trump in a tour of Honeywell International’s mask production line in Phoenix, a trip intended to highlight the reopening of American industry to address the crisis—and to demonstrate confidence that the American private sector will be able to reignite the nation’s economy.
The appearance—touring a facility built to address the greatest crisis to face the country in decades, and that added 500 jobs to the local economy to boot—is what campaign B-roll is made of, particularly for a candidate facing as steep an incline to re-election as McSally. But as the novel coronavirus presents a potential opportunity for McSally to highlight the benefits of her strong support of Trump’s administration, it also demonstrates the limits that Trump’s staunchest allies face in projecting competent, steady leadership during a national crisis.
During his last visit to Arizona, Trump casually told a local reporter that, despite early concerns about the outbreak of a new virus that had originated in China, “it’s going to work out fine.”
“I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of a virus,” Trump said on Feb. 19. “So let’s see what happens, but I think it’s going to work out fine.”
Nearly two months later, and things have not worked out fine. But on his first public outing since he, like most of America, was forced to remain at home, that positive message remains the same—with an added emphasis on the role that vulnerable Republican officials have played in helping their constituents face the virus.
The senator lost her race to replace former Sen. Jeff Flake in 2018, but was appointed to fill the vacant seat of the late John McCain one month later. The appointment proved controversial among Arizona voters—and the McCain family—and six months from election day, McSally trails well-funded Democratic challenger Mark Kelly in every poll of the state.
McSally has, in recent weeks, touted her close relationship with Trump as benefitting the state, presenting the acquisition from the federal government of 100 ventilators for Arizona as “potentially life-saving news for Arizona,” and obtaining billions in assistance intended for Native American tribes, of which there are 21 in the state. She also redirected two weeks of campaign fundraising dollars to the Salvation Army instead of her cash-strapped campaign, raising $212,000 for the organization.
“I put my resources to work to raise money and volunteer for the Salvation Army, helping those directly affected by COVID-19,” McSally said in a press release announcing the total. “This is an unprecedented time, and we must continue to come together as Americans and help each other,” she added.
But in both cases relating to her work as a senator, the reality of the Trump administration’s maladroit response to the crisis has hobbled McSally’s victory lap. Arizona received 100 ventilators only after making an initial request for 5,000 of the devices. The request, though initially approved by the Department of Health and Human Services, was later slashed by 90 percent to 500 when it dawned on state officials that the Trump administration didn’t have anywhere near the resources to meet it. The 100 ventilators, championed as “a huge deal” by McSally on Twitter, amount to one-fiftieth of the state’s original request.
The $8 billion in federal assistance for Native American tribes—which McSally’s office declared she had “successfully secured” for the state’s large tribal population, despite her twice voting for versions of the CARES Act relief package that contained no money for tribes and the money eventually being added to the legislation by Senate Democrats—has also put McSally in the position of having to either support the president or a major constituency in Arizona. The funds are currently frozen, caught in the middle of a lawsuit between the Trump administration and federally recognized tribes over whether it should be apportioned to Alaska Native corporations.
Trump has sided with the Alaska Native corporations—for-profit corporations that own every acre of Native land in the 50th state—even though federally recognized tribes say that it would amount to double-dipping into the much-needed funds.
“Allocating funds from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to the Alaska Native Corporations will severely impact the Navajo Nation’s ability to fight COVID-19, and will impact every other tribe as well,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who represents nearly a quarter-million Navajo in the state. “Including the Alaska Native Corporations in the calculation will reduce the funds available for tribal governments. The impact on the Navajo Nation will be significant because of the Nation’s size, population, and the already disparate impact of COVID-19.”
During a virtual town hall on April 18, the vice president of the Navajo Nation specifically mentioned the Alaska Native corporation issue with tribal relief funding—which is already two weeks late in being dispersed among the nation’s tribes. But the senator has not publicly sided with federally recognized tribes on the issue, and McSally’s office did not return a request for comment on whether she supports the lawsuit.
“She’s generally followed the guidelines of the ‘Don’t Defend Trump’ memo,” one Democratic strategist in the state told The Daily Beast, referring to a strategy memo that the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated in which candidates were encouraged to bash China and to not defend the president, “other than the China Travel Ban.”
In an editorial penned for the Arizona Daily Star this Sunday, McSally followed suit, calling for the Chinese government to “be held accountable for unleashing this calamity on the world.” Trump’s name appeared nowhere in the editorial.
Meanwhile, her opponent has emphasized his background as an engineer and astronaut to urge Arizonans to trust science and expertise over politics.
“I think it's important that leaders are following the science and the data and listening to the healthcare professionals,” Kelly told an Arizona radio station on April 25. “I’m really proud of our local officials and mayors here who have chosen to close down places where the virus could spread because that's the number one issue here.”
The state Democratic party and its allies clearly see great vulnerability in her coronavirus response, particularly as Trump’s own response to the crisis has weakened his approval ratings and fanned the flames of fringier elements in a state that’s increasingly purple electorate. Last Friday, Middle Class Fighting to Restore Arizona’s Unity & Decency, a wordily named Democratic super PAC, dropped a 30-second ad juxtaposing comments McSally made in March in which she called people skipping vacations due to the pandemic “a panicked reaction” with a 2017 vote to cut $1 billion in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Martha McSally is wrong. Martha McSally doesn’t get it,” the ad concludes.
McSally is no stranger to keeping mum on Trump’s less electability-friendly positions and statements. During her close race to replace Flake in 2018, for example, she refused to say whether she supported the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court until after he was confirmed. The senator has also ducked questions from Arizona press about threats by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to block state and local funding in future coronavirus relief bills, and dodged a question about early warnings in the White House about the potential danger of the coronavirus three times when asked by Fox Business Channel host Neil Cavuto.
“Again, I can’t speak to that report,” McSally said. “I can say that over time, in January, February, March, there were a lot of people having different opinions about this in America but we didn’t have the facts.”