Breaking News Alert! Local Republicans finally have come up with a candidate for governor who is … willing to wear a mask.
I know — the bar could hardly be lower. But bear with me here, as this may have bigger implications than it might seem.
Raul Garcia, a 49-year-old political newbie from Yakima, suddenly is making some ripples in the local political scene for nabbing endorsements from some of the few heavy-hitters in Republican politics left around here, such as Rob McKenna, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton and current state Senate GOP leader Mark Schoesler.
They’re endorsing him against Gov. Jay Inslee not because he’s likely to win. But because he isn’t a Trump-toadying, anti-science conspiracist who will totally alienate blue-state voters like the rest of the GOP field.
Other top GOP gubernatorial candidates have staked out absurd reactionary positions on the coronavirus pandemic, vowing they’d rather go to jail than mask up out in public or calling for statewide “mask disobedience” (yeah that’ll sure show the virus).
“I will tell you why I wear a mask,” Garcia, a doctor, countered at a Pasco press conference, in which he called for “selfless acts” to beat the pandemic. “When I cannot socially distance, I wear it for you, not for me. To prevent my saliva from coming out and hitting you.”
It shows how degraded our politics have become in 2020 that such a routine health statement qualifies as noteworthy from the GOP field. Garcia is hardly a liberal but he alone among the top Republican candidates features photos of himself wearing masks all over his social media platforms.
It makes me wonder: Is the cult-like hold Trump has over all things GOP maybe starting to break a tiny bit?
Garcia is an imperfect messenger, as he’s a complete rookie in politics. He’s unlikely to get far because so few have heard of him and the Washington primary election is less than three weeks away.
But that he scored the backing of a skilled party insider like Schoesler, as well as some other incumbent GOP lawmakers who all still have to answer to the base, suggests that being all aboard the Trump train might not be quite the party litmus test it was in recent years.
In this state “we have for 40 years gone with red, and pushed red, and we have not won,” Garcia said at a GOP candidate forum recently. “I think we win with purple, we win in the middle, we win with accommodations.”
That purple stuff is Obama talk. We haven’t heard much of that from either side since the polarizing Trump first rode down that escalator in 2015. A widely-followed pro-Trump site here derided Garcia as “leaving the Republican party” because of his comments.
The problem is that Trump’s presence at the top of the party has all but wiped out the GOP in the King County suburbs, making it virtually impossible for the party to gain much foothold in broader Washington state politics.
But polls suggest GOP voters may no longer be quite so monolithic. Recent national surveys show up to 10% of self-identified Republican voters now slipping away to back Democrat Joe Biden. Locally, the latest KING 5 survey of our state, in late May, found that 8% of Republicans here would vote for Biden, but only 2% of Democrats for Trump.
These shifts seem small but could prove huge. It may mean the base that loathes Trump now is more unified than his legendary base that loves him.
“We only need to peel away 3 to 4 % of Republican voters from Trump – that’s it, that would be enough to defeat him in the swing states in the election,” says Chris Vance, a former Washington state GOP chairman and “never Trumper” who has thrown himself into a slew of anti-Trump campaigns from right of center, including Republican Voters Against Trump and the Lincoln Project, where he is a senior adviser.
Still it’s doubtful there will be a big enough slice of Trump-wavering Republicans to get a more moderate candidate like Garcia through our Aug. 4 gubernatorial primary.
“It may be a first sign of a softening,” Vance said. “But nothing is going to truly change in the modern Trump party until they get crushed.”
Stay tuned. We’ve been so distracted with the global pandemic that our local elections have drawn the least focus and attention of any in memory. But the quiet may be masking some more seismic shifts on the way.