Test kits sit on a table at a Covid-19 testing site in Houston. | David J. Phillip/AP Photo
The explosion of Covid-19 cases in Sun Belt states is becoming another albatross for President Donald Trump’s reelection hopes — and creating a new opening for Joe Biden and Democrats in November.
Republican governors in Florida, Arizona and Texas followed Trump’s lead by quickly reopening their states while taking a lax approach to social distancing and mask-wearing. Now each of them is seeing skyrocketing coronavirus caseloads and rising hospitalizations, and Republican leaders are in retreat.
It’s hard to overstate the gravity of the situation for Trump: Lose any one of the three states, and his reelection is all but doomed.
Liberal outside groups and the Biden campaign have launched digital and TV ads in Florida, Arizona and Texas hitting Trump for allowing a second wave of coronavirus. The developments have buttressed Biden’s main argument against Trump: that he’s incapable of bringing stability or healing in a time of crisis.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, said Trump’s actions have only exacerbated Republicans’ vulnerabilities in the three states. Polls indicate Florida is Biden’s best pick-up opportunity, followed by Arizona and then Texas, a bigger reach.
“The reality is, when it comes to this president’s handling of the pandemic and the subsequent economic disaster that’s befallen our country — which was totally predictable coming out of the pandemic and his handling of it — Trump’s failed leadership has been exposed in a profound way,” Dunn told POLITICO. She added that it “makes him abnormally vulnerable in states that have not traditionally been as competitive as they are now.”
It’s still too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect voters in the three states. While Real Clear Politics lists Texas as a “toss up,” Trump has led two of the last three polls in the reliably red state. Arizona was trending toward Democrats before the pandemic and polls show Biden with a small lead there, but Democrats expect a battle.
Trump’s campaign accuses Democrats of exploiting tragedy.
“While President Trump has been leading the country through the coronavirus crisis, all Joe Biden and his allies have done is try to use a public health issue as a political weapon,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “It’s despicable but typical. They really should focus their attention on New York, where they’ve had a disastrous response — 10 times worse than a state like Florida, which has a higher population.”
Florida’s official coronavirus death toll stood at 3,419 as of Sunday, compared to New York’s 24,835. Texas’s official death toll is 2,366 and Arizona’s is 1,588.
Trump won all three Sun Belt states in 2016 and needs to again this year; movement of even two to three points toward Democrats in any of them could make the difference.
Priorities USA is airing ads in Florida and Arizona pointing to Trump’s recent comments that he urged a scale-back in testing. Texas Democrats are running digital ads doing the same. Democrats in each of the states are highlighting the disproportionate impact on Latinos, many of whom are front-line workers and lack health insurance.
The three states were among the earliest to reopen, with each governor allowing his state’s stay-at-home order to expire on April 30. Here’s a look at the politics in each of them.
Demographic change and the recent surge in Covid-19 cases have put Arizona and its 11 Electoral College votes up for grabs. The last time a Democratic nominee carried the state was Bill Clinton in 1996.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said he expects hospitalizations and deaths to rise in the coming weeks in the state. “Ballots drop in October. The president essentially has two months to try to turn this around in Arizona,” Gallego said. By then, “What’s going to be on the TV is Covid-19.”
In late March, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order barring local governments from requiring masks in public. Two weeks ago, Ducey reversed himself amid pressure from mayors, residents and health care professionals.
As infections surged, Trump held a rally last week with thousands at a Phoenix mega-church, where photos showed the crowd sitting in close proximity and few wearing masks. Ducey brushed off calls to cancel the event. Days before, Phoenix required mask-wearing, but the city order was ignored.
“We’re going to protect people’s rights to assemble in an election year,” Ducey told reporters at a press conference last week, defending his decision to wait until after the Trump event to emphasize to all Arizonans to wear masks.
At the time, Trump applauded Abbott.
“Texas is opening up and a lot of places are opening up. And we want to do it, and I’m not sure that we even have a choice,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting on May 7 with Abbott. “I think we have to do it. You know, this country can’t stay closed and locked down for years.”
Texas soon saw the proportion of coronavirus tests that came back positive spike to nearly 12 percent, in addition to a record-breaking number of hospitalizations. Last week, Abbott said Covid-19 “is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and it must be corralled.” He ordered bars to re-close and restaurants to limit capacity to 50 percent, down from 75 percent.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas political consultant who helped organize Tea Party protests in 2009, echoed fellow Republicans and Democrats who think Trump will still carry Texas. “But not by much,” he said, because the economy is in bad shape and there’s a growing belief the president botched the response to the coronavirus.
“It’s a big impact and the combination with the perception the president has mishandled racial issues and criminal justice issues,” Steinhauser said.
Of the three states, only Florida has been a true presidential swing state in recent decades. If Trump loses its 29 Electoral College votes, his chances of a second term are close to zero.
The Real Clear Politics polling average in Florida has Biden ahead by nearly 7 percentage points.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, has offered mixed messaging in response to coronavirus. He’s repeatedly boasted about his “data-driven” approach but refused to heed advice from medical experts who say that a statewide mask-wearing order would work.
While DeSantis said he was deferring to local governments, Republicans filed a lawsuit last week when a mask-wearing ordinance was passed by Leon County, where the state Capitol is located.
“Our people are ticked off. Most of them are upset about the media coverage about the coronavirus and feel it’s overblown and it’s part of a strategy to bring down the president,” said Evan Power, chairman of the county GOP, the plaintiff in the lawsuit.
While many Democrats have watched their poll numbers rise as they’ve handled coronavirus, DeSantis’s approval ratings have dropped (though, unlike Trump, he’s still above water).
Emboldened Democrats released an ad on Twitter last week contrasting DeSantis’s swagger in late May with the recent rise in coronavirus infections. State Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa said he’s considering putting money behind the ad because “it struck a nerve.”
“Trump has botched every stage of this response and people are starting to see DeSantis as Trump’s lapdog,” Peñalosa said.
Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, the former health and human services secretary, said the state’s tourism-dependent is suffering.
“We have no national strategy, we have no state strategy, and the state has opened too early — and why are we surprised that cases have surged?” Shalala said. “They’re going to hold the president responsible for mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis for missing it. He’s still saying, ‘I told my people to stop testing.’”
Shalala dinged Trump for steaming ahead with the Republican convention in Jacksonville, creating another potentially dangerous situation.
“If we have to shut down again, that’s a Trump shutdown,” she said. “We have a governor who is following the Trump playbook. I think Trump is in trouble in Florida.”