Sunday, December 4, 2022
Dec. 4, 2022

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Westneat: Is the fever breaking?

Election results in Washington show Trump may be losing his grip on conservative voters

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It didn’t take long, when the election of 2022 didn’t go as hoped, for some Republicans to head straight for their dark place.

“It’s obvious now: America’s voting system is rigged!” posted the Skagit County Republicans on the party’s website. The chair of that group also runs the state Republicans’ “election integrity” committee.

Joe Kent, the Donald Trump-endorsed candidate in Southwest Washington, went on national shows to claim that the snail’s pace of vote counting here in Washington is a plot.

“Best case is, it’s psychological warfare,” the former CIA operative conspiratorially told a host, who seemed to be pretending to be alarmed. “Worst case is, there’s sleight of hand going on behind the scenes.”

Boring case is: Votes were still arriving in the mail?

What’s so insincere about these complaints is that these late-arriving votes, a reality in every election, were helping Kent gain on his Democratic opponent, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. But the Trump fever runs hot. It feeds itself on grievance and the casting of aspersions, even when nothing is going wrong.

There are signs, though, that this fever might be breaking. If only a bit.

For starters, did you notice that most candidates around the country have accepted the election results with a traditional concession, or at a minimum, silence? Normalcy seems to have slightly regained an upper hand over lunacy.

A phenomenon happened here, in the Kent race, that is even more hopeful. After years of increasing partisanship and tribalism in politics, the “ticket splitter” suddenly reemerged.

These are voters who cross over from one party to the other on the same ballot. They were thought to be all but extinct. Partisanship has grown so controlling that Democrats and Republicans were essentially conducting two different elections, broadcasting separate messages to distinct groups of people believed to be living in parallel worlds.

In the 3rd Congressional District, a handful of Republicans had announced last month that they were crossing over. They said they couldn’t vote for Kent because he is so extreme that he has “an inability to connect with reality.”

It turns out it became a real movement.

Kent, as of Friday’s vote counts, was performing about 5 percent below the party’s U.S. Senate candidate in the district, Tiffany Smiley. Most of those voters marked their ballots for Smiley, and then crossed over and backed Perez, who did about 4 percent better in the district than Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray did.

It adds up to about 11,000 people. That’s far more than the margin separating the two candidates. Had Kent performed only as well in this district as Smiley, a newcomer facing a 30-year incumbent, the congressional race would have been called in favor of the Republicans on election night. The ticket-splitters may well have cost Kent the seat.

It doesn’t mean the Trump spell is broken. It does mean the cult may be cracking a bit, though. The local Republican Party should find those 11,000 independent-minded people and start rebuilding its future in this state around them.

Speaking of rebuilding, here’s another thing the local GOP might ponder. The day after the election, KIRO radio had on a conservative talk show host to provide some insight, from the right, about why the big red wave turned into a trickle.

The host made some on-point comments about how the GOP needed a “deprogramming” from Trump. But then he said this: “If you can’t beat Patty Murray, there’s something really wrong with the state GOP or the national GOP.”

I swear the GOP’s tombstone should read: “Washington state Republicans: Underestimating Patty Murray since 1989!”

The reality is that Murray has now won six statewide elections. Along the way she’s bested three GOP members of Congress, a former state party chair, a state senator and now newcomer Smiley. You’d think by now that someone in that party, rather than dismissing her, would study how she does it.

Murray will be underestimated all the way to the end. In one sense that’s a sad statement, both on the struggles for women to gain full equality in politics, and also on how quieter, less showy talents continue to go unrecognized in our loud society.

But it also means she’s got them right where she wants them. As she has since 1989.

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