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How Trump's COVID-19 Diagnosis Could Affect Down-Ballot Republicans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The presidential election campaign may have been thrown into chaos after President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, but that's just the latest seismic jolt in a political era that's seen almost too many to count, from the election of Donald Trump to the rise of insurgent Democrats who helped take back the House just two years later. Now, we've spoken to a lot of Democrats who've flipped seats held by Republicans, but today we want to check back in with a group of Republicans who also had success last election cycle.

We spoke with Nick Sherman and Diana Irey Vaughan, who both serve on the Board of Commissioners in Washington County. That's in western Pennsylvania. They flipped control of the board last year. And also Michael Adams, who was elected last year as secretary of state for Kentucky.

I started our conversation by asking Nick Sherman how he was doing and whether the pandemic had affected his job as county commissioner.

NICK SHERMAN: Things are busy on our end. The coronavirus, just like everyone else in the country, has hit us pretty hard. A lot of people don't realize here in Pennsylvania, we were one of the hardest hit - not with the coronavirus, but with our economy being absolutely devastated. Our governor locked us down pretty tight and has been not very quick to allow us to operate to a normal state here.

MARTIN: Diana Irey Vaughan, first of all, how are you?

DIANA IREY VAUGHAN: (Laughter) I'm doing great.

MARTIN: And how has the - you're doing OK. That's good to hear. How has the pandemic made an impact on your life and the lives of your constituents and how you're doing your job?

VAUGHAN: The pandemic has had an enormous effect, and I believe it is because of the orders, the mandates, of Governor Tom Wolf, who is a Democrat. He really in some senses overreacted.

He did stay-at-home orders where individuals who left their home, if they were not considered an essential worker, were cited, were fined, were arrested. He closed businesses. And then when he allowed some to open, he did not do it consistently. He closed our schools. He violated our constitutional rights, our right to assemble. He violated the rights of businesses under the equal protection clause when he closed their businesses, taking of property without compensation. And he limited the numbers of those who could gather.

There was no due process of law in an appeals process that he had shut down. And we, the Washington County Board of Commissioners, along with three other county commissions and a few other elected officials filed legal action against the governor and secretary of health, which ruled in our favor.

MARTIN: So you don't - you didn't consider those appropriate steps to preserve people's health and safety. You thought - you didn't think that was appropriate.

VAUGHAN: In the beginning - in the very beginning, we recognized a need to take action. However, we believed, and as the judge has ruled, the governor's powers are finite. You cannot do this for an unspecified period of time. It cannot just hang out there over people's head.

MARTIN: OK. Mr. Secretary of State, how are you doing?

MICHAEL ADAMS: I'm doing great. What's the saying? Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: We're doing just fine under the circumstances.

MARTIN: So I'm interested in what impact the national political mood and the races are having on your jobs. So and - just like I was interested in just how the whole coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on your job - so Mr. secretary of state, like, how - has this affected the way you have been doing your job?

ADAMS: It pretty much is my job. I'm the chief election official for Kentucky, and I ran on a platform of ballot integrity, photo ID, cleaning up the voter rolls and so forth. I stand by all of that. But that's not been the biggest challenge I've had. The biggest challenge I've had is to sort of reconsider things I didn't favor during my campaign and embrace those and govern from the center and take ideas from the other side of the aisle, actually implement them. And that's been actually pretty combustible.

But so far, it's working. I've had to expand voting access to deal with the pandemic. I've had to expand mail-in absentee voting and in-person early voting, which are usually associated with the Democrats. Those are things my opponent ran on and I ran against. But under the current circumstances, I've had to embrace those to ensure that we can have a safe and successful election.

MARTIN: What about when the president suggested last Tuesday that his supporters show up at the polls to watch closely? How did you interpret that, and how do you react to that?

ADAMS: I don't make a...

MARTIN: Because you are aware that obviously...

ADAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: There are a lot of critics who say that that's absolutely inappropriate. That's encouraging kind of thuggery - the kind of thing that we would - if people in other countries suggested that, we would be sending election monitors.

ADAMS: We...

MARTIN: So how do you respond to that?

ADAMS: We've been very clear to threats made, if you want to call it that, suggestions made on both sides of the aisle. We're not going to accept any intimidation from anybody. We've got very clear laws to Kentucky about who's allowed in the polling place. It's the poll workers and the voters. And by law, the campaigns can appoint challengers to observe the process. That's the only people allowed in, and that's doubly true in an era of social distancing. We can't have crowds in these polling stations.

So we've been very clear in response just - not to him particularly but across the board that that's how we're going to do it.

MARTIN: That's - kind of leads to the question that I had, which is that when we spoke, when we last spoke, Nick Sherman, you were talking about your efforts to overcome polarization and to connect with voters who didn't agree with you or who didn't support President Trump. How have you gone about that in Washington - is that still a goal of yours, and how have you gone about that?

SHERMAN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I'm not - look, I'm not the county commissioner for the Republicans. I'm the county commissioner for the Republicans, the Democrats, the Green, the independents - everyone - for the voters, for the people that don't vote. My job is to make sure that we have a good human service department. And myself and my partner Diana Irey Vaughan are doing a good job with that.

My job is to make sure we have fair elections, and we're trying to do that. My job's to make sure that I'm a steward of the taxpayers' dollars, and I think that's what we all want. I mean, we may disagree on so many things with this polarization of the presidential election year, but at the end of the day, we want jobs, and we want our children to be safe, and we want our schools to be good. And, you know, we can come together. We may disagree on how we get there, but we can all agree on that.

MARTIN: Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan, what about you? Is that still a goal - to try to overcome polarization where you are? And if so, how is that going?

VAUGHAN: It is a goal, and I will tell you it's more difficult now than ever. So we are trying to make sure that there's a dialogue. Unfortunately, what used to be civil discourse and dialogue has turned in to very angry individuals who cannot open their minds to try to come to a compromise. And I think you see this huge divide. So it's a huge concern we have.

MARTIN: Mr. secretary of state, what about you? What are your thoughts about this?

ADAMS: Well, I went out of my way in my campaign last year to talk about having grown up in a Democratic family, a Democratic part of the state, and having gone to Harvard, having been around people who aren't Republicans my whole life. And it gave me empathy, and I thought it was important to bring that to our state capital.

And I'm glad I did because it's really been necessary. In prior crises - Sept. 11, Pearl Harbor and so forth - the country came together. And this time, it really hasn't. If anything, it's made the divisions worse. It's even impacted how people - how seriously they take COVID-19, based on their politics. And that's really, really frustrating.

It's a really hard time to be in public service - not just for me, but for our governor, our attorney general, others. It's a really hard time to govern because it's really hard to develop consensus. So I've certainly done my part by reaching out to the ACLU and the NAACP and folks that didn't support me to try to include them in our policymaking and so forth.

And I think that shows in how we've come up with very pro-voter policies to expand access - which has really gotten me a lot of heat on the right, unfortunately, but I think we've managed it pretty well.

MARTIN: That is the Kentucky secretary of state, Michael Adams. We were also joined by Diana Irey Vaughan, Republican chair of the Board of Commissioners in Washington County, Pa., and fellow Republican County Commissioner Nick Sherman.

Thank you all so much for talking to us. Once again, I hope you stay well. And I do hope we'll talk again.

ADAMS: Thank you.

SHERMAN: Michel, I...

VAUGHAN: Thank you for having me.

SHERMAN: ...Look forward to it. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN BURNOUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.