One of my assumptions heading into the start of voting in 2020 is that this election would be about one big issue: the coronavirus.
Why wouldn’t it be? We’re in a global pandemic that’s cratered much of the economy. We lead the world in cases and deaths, with no end in sight. It’s the worst large-scale flop of American government I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
As The Associated Press reported a few days ago: “The failure of the most powerful nation in the world to contain the scourge has been met with astonishment and alarm in Europe.”
I figured there’d be astonishment and alarm here, too. Given the 164,000 deaths, voter patience must have expired for the Trump-led virus denial, the culture war sideshow about masks, the LIBERATE silliness, and so on.
Boy was I wrong. Guess who did absolutely terrific in last week’s Washington state primary elections? The COVID-19 denial crowd, that’s who.
Take, say, Rep. Robert Sutherland, a Republican up in Snohomish County. He pooh-poohed the virus as “this year’s flu season.” Then he called for a “rebellion” against the pandemic restrictions, promised to counter law enforcement with his own arms if needed and insisted he was being oppressed so much he was like Rosa Parks.
Voters in the primary Tuesday gave him his highest re-elect numbers, more than 61% — five points higher than when he won the seat in 2018.
Remember the four GOP state legislators who sued Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions? They argued back in early May that the virus emergency was over and that “we can declare victory.” Even at the time this was obviously wrong. But now after we’ve had huge outbreaks around the nation, it feels like leadership malpractice. No worries — all four are sailing to re-election, with none drawing less than 55% of the vote.
Now some of these are in staunch red districts (though some, like Yakima, have seen major coronavirus outbreaks). But take the case of Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. That’s a longtime Democratic area — he’s the sole elected Republican in his district, and he had previously eked out all of his wins by only about 1 percentage point.
He spent spring and summer helping lead some of those liberty rallies around the state that equated the stay-home pandemic restrictions to tyranny, as well as emceeing “maskless MAGA meetups.”
“I don’t think the governor can hear you, are you here for insubordination?” Walsh exhorted at a rally in Olympia in April, where protesters carried such signs as “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.”
So how did voters in a purple district respond to this? “Walsh soars,” the local paper reported, as he won by a dominating 15 points in last Tuesday’s primary.
“It amazes me that Republicans did better than expected with such a high turnout. It’s not supposed to work that way. … Something is going on,” tweeted Olympia lobbyist Martin Flynn.
Flynn also pointed to the 8th Congressional District, a seat held by a seemingly popular doctor, Kim Schrier, and considered relatively safe for the Democrats in this year of the toxic Trump. But a field of no-name Republicans is outpolling the Democratic votes in the primary by about 2 percentage points — a result Flynn said is “just a shock.”
The voter turnout statewide was the highest for a primary since at least 1964.
JT Wilcox, R-Yelm and the leader of the state House Republicans, said he thinks the coronavirus resonated more in statewide races, such as for governor, where it’s “the one thing Governor (Jay) Inslee is seen as doing right by about 60% of the public.”
But in more local races, in many districts away from King County, the political scene has over the summer morphed into more of a reaction to the Seattle City Council and the chaotic “defund the police” issue, he suggested.
“There is an iron rule in modern Washington politics: What starts in Seattle comes to the rest of the state, eventually,” Wilcox said. “So people are worried about that. And on this issue, like on what they just did to the police chief (Carmen Best), there are moderate Democrats who could be speaking out about it. But they aren’t. It’s really damaging to their party around the state right now.”
Congrats, Seattle City Council. You’ve gone so far this time you’ve managed to distract people even from a global pandemic.
Of course it’s only August. Maybe voters are just fatigued with the coronavirus, dispirited about it to the point of wanting to focus on something, anything, else.
Plus news cycles ebb and flow. In November, the presidential contest will actually be on the ballot — highlighting, presumably, the desperate need that still exists for steady, rational leadership to take on this health crisis.
That’s what the polls are still saying, anyway. But we didn’t see that narrative much reflected in the real-life votes that were cast last week.