Among the dozens of Washington races on the November ballot, none show the political divisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic quite as starkly as the race between Gov. Jay Inslee and Loren Culp.

Inslee, who is running for a third term, points to his office’s early response to slow the spread of the virus in Washington, which had the first outbreak in the U.S. He changed his Twitter photo to one of him wearing a mask, and makes a point to take off his mask and put it back on during news conferences. At the governor’s debate Wednesday evening, he credited his mandates for saving Washingtonians’ lives “by the hundreds, maybe the thousands.”

Meanwhile, Culp, the police chief of Republic, Ferry County, has hosted rallies stressing that masks are optional, vowed to end all mask and stay-at-home orders and says he’s not worried about catching the virus. During Wednesday’s debate, which he noted he would have preferred being on the same stage, he said he’s not against wearing masks, but said he’s against one person in the governor’s office telling others what to wear and whether they are going to work or not.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has killed more than 210,000 Americans, shut down the economy and upended the lives of pretty much everyone. And on the virtual campaign trail, COVID-19 has become a political issue — candidates have to answer to all facets of the pandemic, from basic facts like whether they believe the virus is deadly and if they wear masks, to longer-term questions of how they’ll address economic impacts and health care.

The impact of COVID-19 within politics became even more apparent this month, as President Donald Trump was diagnosed with the coronavirus and hospitalized. He returned to the White House, declaring the virus something that shouldn’t “dominate your life” and rejected the idea of a virtual debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Inslee, on his candidate Twitter account, told his 201,000 followers to not listen to the president about COVID-19, as “he cannot be trusted.”

Political divisions

With or without Trump as president, political scientists and historians noted that COVID-19 and the pandemic was bound to become a political issue, in part because public life in America has become increasingly stratified along political lines, with an increasingly wide ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans.

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“Find something in modern American life that isn’t politicized and doesn’t become a divisive topic,” said Mark Smith, a UW political science professor. “In principle, it would be, ‘There’s a pandemic, OK, let’s find the best solution.’ It’s a nice idea but that quickly breaks down because some people view it as being more serious than others. It becomes a divisive issue.”

In March, as the number of COVID-19 cases surged throughout the U.S., 78% of Democrats considered the outbreak a major threat to the health of the country, compared with 52% of Republicans. By July, the gap had widened to 85% of Democrats, compared with 46% of Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I think that Trump especially has been on this complete positivity thing of ‘we have this beat, it’s fine,’ and it seems to me that it is fooling people into thinking this isn’t a big deal, when it clearly is a big deal,” said Peg Achterman, a Seattle Pacific University associate professor of communication. “Biden is taking the right approach, of ‘this is very serious, we need to take it seriously, if you elected me I will take it seriously.’”

Those who identify with the two parties also had disparate views of the COVID-19 response.

In September, 68% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents said the U.S. had done as much as it could to control the outbreak, compared with 11% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents, according to Pew.

Candidates in nonpartisan races have also seen COVID-19 dominate the conversation. In 2016, Chris Reykdal focused his campaign for state schools chief on the need for more education funding, student equity and improved standardized tests. As the incumbent this year, the focus is COVID-19, and specifically what his office has done and will do to help districts navigate remote learning.

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“The first race was very much establishing this longer-term vision,” said Reykdal, who is running against Maia Espinoza. Espinoza did not respond to requests for comment. “This race is really about how we have achieved that, and then suddenly recognize that the world has completely shifted around COVID-19.”

Divisions on face coverings

Face coverings, in particular, have become a symbol of the stark differences among candidates; Culp has called the decision whether to wear a mask one of individual freedom and liberty. The discussion surrounding a simple piece of cloth has largely been along party lines; several other Republican candidates have criticized Inslee’s mask mandates.  

One of the candidates is Republican state Rep. Vicki Kraft, who is running against Democrat Tanisha Harris to represent southwest Washington’s 17th Legislative District. Kraft has attended anti-lockdown rallies and, in a meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board, compared Inslee to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in the decisions the governor had made regarding the state’s stay-at-home orders.

Harris said her campaign realized early on that it would need to make COVID-19 a part of her platform and emphasize how the pandemic has exposed inequities in other areas, like public education, health care and transportation. Harris called Kraft far removed from science and data. Kraft did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s not difficult to campaign against that, because we have fundamental differences when it comes to all the issues,” said Harris, who ran against Kraft in 2018. “This just adds one more layer to the campaign.”

There are several factors why some groups are more likely to reject face mask usage or other mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, despite public health recommendations, said Jennifer Selin, an assistant professor of constitutional democracy at the University of Missouri’s Kinder Institute. There’s the initial instinct to say “no” when being told what to do. She also cited the changing messaging on face masks from the start of the pandemic, when mask usage was discouraged, to now, when state orders have mandated masks in certain spaces like businesses or on public transit.

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Jesse Jensen, who is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier to represent the 8th Congressional District, has encountered voters who say they’re frustrated with the “moving target nature” of mask recommendations, noting statements made earlier this year by Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health officials, who initially advised the public against wearing masks because hospitals and medical providers were facing shortages of personal protective equipment.

“This is a fast-moving pandemic and we are learning a lot,” Jensen said he tells voters who are skeptical. “We need to adhere to the best understanding of what the science is telling us.”

The variances along party lines with mask usage and the pandemic also relate to the fundamental differences in the parties’ beliefs of the role of government, Selin said.

“The Republican Party in general really believes that government exists to protect individual freedoms. The less burden government places on individuals, the more free they are,” she said. “They do tend to believe the government should stay out of one’s business as often as possible, whereas Democrats tend to believe it’s the role of the government to protect individuals, and sometimes governmental intervention is necessary.”

Not every Republican candidate has taken such extreme stances on masks. Jensen wears a face mask when in public, though he notes he’s been heckled at Republican campaign events for doing so. If voters ask why he’s wearing a mask, he says that he has a baby at home and a relative who has cancer.

With mixed messages from health officials and leaders, voters have turned to Schrier, who was a pediatrician before she won her seat in 2018, for medical advice. At town hall events, attendees asked specific questions such as why they need to wear a mask or if it’s safe to take in mail along with inquiries about her stance on other issues, said Schrier, a Democrat.

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A turnout game

Political consultants and experts say getting existing supporters to turn out may be more important this year than trying to sway swing voters or convincing anyone from the other side.

“It’s really a turnout game of who comes to the polls and who goes to their mailbox,” said Seferiana Day of Upper Left Strategies, a political consulting and public affairs firm that works with Democratic campaigns. “I do think it’s hard to tap into people who say, ‘I don’t believe science,’ or, ‘I don’t trust public health.’”

Kevin McDonald, an Edmonds resident who identifies as an independent, said he’s basing his candidate decisions on who can best balance protecting vulnerable populations with allowing businesses to reopen. He added he’s frustrated with extremes on both sides.

“I think we could open up the economy, but let’s be smart about it, and protect the elderly,” he said. “At the same time, there’s so much conflicting information. It’s hard to sift through all the reports. What is the truth? Is one side true or the other side? Or somewhere in the middle?”

He remains undecided.