Arizona Senate campaigns get creative amid virus scare

JONATHAN J. COOPER
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Election 2020 Senate Arizona

FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2020, file photo, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally for President Donald Trump in Phoenix. McSally is volunteering at the Salvation Army. Mark Kelly is using his background as an astronaut to entertain kids stuck at home. The global pandemic that is shaking up life is also forcing Arizona's U.S. Senate candidates to reinvent the political playbook when voters are much more concerned about staying healthy and paying the bills than they are with politics. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — Martha McSally is volunteering at the Salvation Army. Mark Kelly is using his background as an astronaut to entertain kids stuck at home.

The global pandemic that is shaking up the nation's way of life is also forcing Arizona's U.S. Senate candidates to reinvent the political playbook when rallies are verboten, door-to-door campaigning is off limits and voters are much more concerned about staying healthy and paying the bills than they are with politics.

Political campaigns are about connecting with people. Inspiring and motivating them. Encouraging them to the knock on doors, speak to their friends and neighbors and get out the vote. That connectedness is the antithesis of social distancing.

But they also can be helpful. Both campaigns say they are using their networks of staff and volunteers to check in on people and help those in need. Both have their aides working from home and have forgone door-to-door campaigning and large events for volunteers or supporters.

The race is a top-tier contest that will help determine control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans' strong grip on Arizona politics is loosening with the growth of the Latino electorate and the GOP's growing weaknesses in the fast-growing suburban areas of Phoenix. In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeated McSally for the state's other Senate seat. McSally was later appointed to John McCain's former Senate seat and is hoping to hold onto it after the November election.

“The election is seven months away,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “We've got time to figure this out, different ways to communicate with the electorate.”

Kelly this week joined his brother, Scott Kelly, another former astronaut, to appear in a live 20-minute Instagram broadcast targeted to children. The twins took turns reading Mark Kelly's children's book, Mousetronaut, about a mouse that travels in space, then answered questions about their favorite space foods, if it's scary to travel in space and whether there are chickens up there.

The brothers, both dressed in NASA jackets, never mentioned Mark Kelly's Senate race, though his campaign promoted the talk on social media.

Kelly told kids to think of their time away from school like a mission in space, their family the crew; everyone has to work together, listen, do their chores and and their work make a successful mission.

It's the quarantine version of a strategy Kelly has employed for much of the campaign to date — using his four space missions to connect with children and talk about science instead of politics.

McSally announced last month she was cancelling plans to air a new television ad, though the ad time hadn't been booked yet. This week she said she's donating her April paychecks to the Salvation Army and all money that comes into the campaign to the Salvation Army. On Friday, she volunteered at the organization, handing out food and supplies to people driving through.

Through her Senate office, McSally has stepped up her use of telephone town halls that her office says reach tens of thousands of people, holding two of them in less than a week. She has touted the bipartisan rescue package to help people struggling with lost wages as the economy has shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, the virus caused by the new coronavirus.

She has fielded detailed questions from worried taxpayers, caregivers and business owners about how they will receive the $1,200-per-person stimulus money or how to apply for small business assistance. She has also pushed back against constituents suggesting the orders to stay at home are too aggressive or that only the elderly and sick need to worry.

“It’s on each of us to go where the facts are,” McSally told one caller on a Thursday town hall. “This is a deadly virus.”

Most people feel mild or moderate symptoms from the coronavirus, but some experience more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. Older people and those with existing health problems are most at risk for the severe complications, but others have experienced them too.

Public health officials say staying home will slow the spread of the virus and help ensure hospitals aren't overwhelmed with sick people, which could raise the death toll of people with treatable problems who can't be effectively cared for.