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How The Pandemic May Be Influencing Voters


Arizona has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the U.S. It's also a political battleground state. Both presidential campaigns are competing in Arizona, and the state has one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports how the pandemic may be influencing voters there.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Arizona hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1996, but focusing on health care, Democrats think they have a shot from the top of the ballot to the Senate race. And so at a debate on Arizona PBS, it was remarkable when Republican Martha McSally refused to say whether she was proud of the president.


MARTHA MCSALLY: The legislation we put on his desk is to cut Arizona taxes.

TED SIMMONS: It sounds like she is proud of her support for President Trump.

MCSALLY: I'm proud to be fighting for Arizona. The question is...

SIEGLER: Coronavirus cases in Arizona were relatively low until Governor Doug Ducey lifted a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-May. Will Humble with the Arizona Public Health Association is the former state health director.

WILL HUMBLE: We went from a stay-at-home order that had good compliance to basically a free-for-all.

SIEGLER: Humble traces that abrupt reversal to pressure from President Trump, who had campaigned in Arizona just days before. He says the fallout was disastrous. Cases surged, and by the peak in July, 150 people a day here were dying from the virus - mostly older people, even though young adults accounted for the bulk of the cases.

HUMBLE: And you can pin that on the president. But to me, I pin it on those elected officials that look at the clear evidence no better and still fall in line with his rhetoric.

SIEGLER: There's still no statewide mask ordinance, and initially, cities like Phoenix that tried to pass their own were overridden by the governor. Bars, restaurants reopened with little or no enforcement. So did gyms, which is where 43-year-old Melissa Trujillo thinks she got infected in June.

MELISSA TRUJILLO: And I understand the losses of businesses, but I'm more concerned about the losses of life. I could have lost my life, and I could have left three kids by themselves.

SIEGLER: Trujillo, an avid runner, still suffers from headaches, memory loss and fatigue. But surviving the virus motivated her to get involved in politics for the first time.

TRUJILLO: This whole COVID thing made me realize, oh, guess what? Now I have a preexisting condition.

SIEGLER: Trujillo gets insurance through work, but she worries about losing her job. So she spends her free time registering voters and talking on her Facebook live about why this election is critical. This is an easier lift in more diverse Phoenix, where bilingual Democratic campaign signs crowd busy intersections. Drive the megafreeways east, and the scene gets a lot more conservative and whiter.

KATHLEEN WINN: I actually had decorations here, so we took all our decorations home.

SIEGLER: In Mesa, 62-year-old Kathleen Winn had several friends who got the virus and recovered. She and her husband also know of people who died.

WINN: My husband and I have been tested, like, six times, and we've never gotten it. And my husband's about 12 years older, so he's in that same age as the president. He's 74.

SIEGLER: The coronavirus is also a big factor in Winn's vote because she wants President Trump to be in charge managing the economic recovery.

WINN: We need to protect ourselves. We need to be safe. But COVID has become a weapon and people calling out people whether they're wearing a mask or not.

SIEGLER: Voters like Winn probably had their minds made up before the pandemic. And even now, with more than 225,000 Americans dead from the virus, there's little blame for the president in Mesa.


BLAKE SHELTON: (Singing) Got no regrets 'cause it got me here.

SIEGLER: Country music plays over speakers in a nearby driving range. Larry Dawson says the president was right to let states take the lead. He thinks the media has created hysteria.

LARRY DAWSON: Hasn't changed our lives much, you know, here in Arizona. Now we're able to go out. We're able to enjoy most things normally other than social distancing and mask-wearing.

SIEGLER: Things do feel pretty pre-pandemic in places here - people sitting at the bar, eating indoors in the air conditioning. And lately, cases are starting to go back up again. Back in Phoenix, that worries Jennifer Dennis, who's out on an evening walk in Cesar Chavez Park. She's a retired nurse and thinks Trump took a cavalier attitude from the beginning.

JENNIFER DENNIS: A lot of the news about it was kept from us, and they didn't put a lot of safety measures or protocols in place that they could have. And so I think that maybe the risk was higher.

SIEGLER: Dennis hasn't been feeling well lately. Her doctor thinks it's just a cold, but she got tested anyway as a precaution.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZEY EYES' "UNTITLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.