Gov. Doug Ducey’s meeting with President Trump on August 5 comes 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 a matter of political survival. Arizona’s 11 electoral votes could prove crucial in his quest for another four years in office.
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.
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, there are more immediate crucial issues.
The governor has a personal stake of sort in the McSally campaign.
His appointment of her came after she was unable to win a Senate campaign of her own 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 defeat 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 term if Democrats manage to take control of either – or both – chambers of the Legislature.
Democrats need to oust just one of the 31 Republicans to force a coalition in the House; picking up two seats would give them absolute control.
The 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 COVID-19 outbreak.
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 isn’t 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. But 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 shut bars and restaurants and other non-essential businesses that the governor followed suit.
And only at the end of March did he issue his order to have people stay at home other than to participate in “essential activities.”
Even then, he not only refused to impose a statewide requirement for masks but actually threatened local governments 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 even 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 both restaurants and bars to reopen if they would promise 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.
But the worst was yet to come as customers flooded the newly reopened bars.
New cases peaked at 5,458 June 29, the date that Ducey finally admitted he made a mistake in allowing bars to reopen. He also decided at that point to again close 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.”
But 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 even are discussions among some legislators 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 fend off 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.
And 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 of the gyms without some ability to show they can operate safely violated the due process rights of the owners.
And 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.