Gov. Doug Ducey’s meeting with President Trump on Wednesday came as both are seeking to write a new narrative about their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the president, the opportunity for each to praise the other is about political survival. Arizona’s 11 electoral votes could prove crucial in his quest in November for another four years in the White House.
That was underscored by a photo-op at the White House with the pair chatting in front of a chart listing all the federal aid and medications provided by the federal government to Arizona.
But it goes beyond Trump’s own future. Also at stake is the bid by Martha McSally to hang on to the Senate seat formerly held by John McCain, a seat to which Ducey appointed her. McSally’s seat is one the president needs the GOP to hold to keep its Senate majority.
Ducey’s concerns for his own image are less immediate. With no gubernatorial race, he has no need to defend his handling of the virus until he decides what he wants to do after leaving office at the end of 2022.
Still, the governor has a personal stake of sorts in the McSally campaign.
His appointment of her came after she was unable to win a Senate campaign in 2018, with Arizona voters preferring Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. A defeat this year could be seen as a message that voters believe Ducey made a mistake in appointing her following that loss and, in doing so, giving her another shot at statewide election.
But there’s more. The Republican governor faces the very real possibility of becoming a true lame duck for the last two years of his tenure if Democrats manage to take control of either or both chambers of the Legislature in November.
Democrats need to oust just one of the 31 Republicans to force a coalition in the state House; picking up two seats would give them absolute control.
The state Senate is a bigger hurdle, with Democrats having to move two seats into their column for a tie and three for a majority.
And all this comes as both Trump and Ducey are under fire from multiple quarters about how they have handled the pandemic.
For Trump, the issues center around his denial for months that there was a problem and his insistence that it would go away. Then there were the mixed messages, with the president at some points saying governors should bow to his leadership and then saying this is not a federal problem.
He still faces scrutiny as his own health experts continue to publicly disagree with him about the best course of action.
Ducey, for his part, waited until late March to declare an emergency. It took him a few more days to close schools — at that point, for just two weeks. And it was only after Tucson and Flagstaff moved to shutter bars and restaurants and other non-essential businesses that the governor followed suit.
At the end of March, he issued his order to have people stay at home other than to participate in “essential activities.”
But he not only refused to impose a statewide requirement for masks, he threatened local officials who wanted to impose their own mandates with legal action. Finally, in June, he relented, gave the go-ahead for cities and counties to act — and started wearing a mask himself.
Potentially more significant was Ducey’s decision to not only lift that stay-at-home order in May but allow restaurants and bars to reopen if they promised to limit capacity and promote physical distancing.
The results were alarming.
On May 16, the day the stay-at-home order expired, there were 485 cases of the virus reported.
Two weeks later — one week for incubation and one for getting test results back — the new-case count had risen to 743.
The worst was yet to come as customers flooded the newly reopened bars.
New cases peaked at 5,458 on June 29, the day Ducey admitted he made a mistake in allowing bars to reopen. He also decided at that point to again shutter gyms, fitness centers and water parks and forbid movie theaters from reopening.
Asked if he screwed up in his original decision, Ducey responded “we’re fixing it.”
The governor has not just taken fire from Democrats for what they see as his slow reaction to the public health crisis. He also has his share of critics from his right, who question his continued closure orders and the fact that he has not ordered schools to reopen for all in-classroom instruction. Instead, the governor has deferred to local school districts to make that decision, using yet-to-be-released “metrics” from the state Department of Health Services.
There are discussions at the Legislature among some members of his own party about revisiting the emergency powers they gave him, if not now, then after this crisis is over.
And then there have been the court battles.
Ducey managed to beat back a bid by a Flagstaff resident to get a federal judge to rule that the stay-at-home order was an invasion of his rights.
He also prevailed in the first two legal efforts by gyms and fitness centers to reopen.
That changed earlier this week when a judge declared that closure, made without providing gyms some ability to show they can operate safely, violated the due process rights of the owners.
There is a separate claim pending at the Arizona Supreme Court by the owners of more than 60 bars throughout the state that the law giving Ducey the emergency powers to keep them shuttered is unconstitutional.
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