The zombie that’s eating politics comes to King County


The news that an election denier is vying to run the vote-counting operation in King County is a little startling, in a “really, here?” kind of way. But it’s also a fitting symbol for the state of Republican politics right now.

They’ve gone into the zombie zone.

The belief that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from Donald Trump had long ago heated up and boiled over. Then it seemed to cool away. When the candidates who promoted the theory got thrashed at the polls last year, and the last of the conspiracy-laden lawsuits in Washington state got dismissed this past summer for lack of any proof, it looked as if the “stop the steal” movement had had its last gasp, at least locally.

But it was just moving into its undead phase.

The New York Times writer Paul Krugman has popularized the concept of “zombies” in politics. “A zombie idea is a belief or doctrine that has repeatedly been proved false, but refuses to die,” he writes. “Instead it just keeps shambling along, eating people’s brains.”

He cites climate change denial as one such zombie idea, or the belief that tax cuts pay for themselves. Both discredited planks, but relentlessly promoted all the same. Now election denial joins this pack of the living dead.

“I came here to chew bubble gum and deny the 2020 election, and I’m all out of bubble gum,” cracked Seth Keshel last month, in Black Diamond, at a fundraiser for local candidate Doug Basler, of Kent, who is running for King County elections director.

Keshel is sort of a traveling conspiracy salesman. A former military officer, he goes around with a statistical presentation for how the 2020 election not only was rigged against Trump, but how Washington state was the most fraudulent of all.

“Trump could have won Washington state,” he tells the small crowd, which was gasping in alarm at Keshel’s data during an hourlong presentation. “Somebody decided that no matter how many votes Trump gains, we’re going to turn Washington to the left by three more points.”

Keshel’s claims have been repeatedly debunked — one political scientist said “there is zero valuable academic information here” — but it doesn’t seem to matter. On this night it animated this group of Republicans to donate to Basler’s outsider campaign for elections director in the state’s biggest county.

“They tell me I can’t win, because they cheat,” Basler tells the crowd. “Well guess what? If I can’t win, then I can say anything I want.”

That’s one of the tropes of this conspiracy: Losing is the main evidence of it. The losing makes it self-reinforcing. We run to stop the cheating, but the cheating is why we lose. You’ll see, it’ll all be proven on Election Day.

Keshel seemed to get that this is a bit of a downer, so he suggests a rebrand.

“We are not election deniers,” he says. “We are fraud affirmers.”

That affirming part is proving elusive. Keshel attests that “somebody in Washington state” gifted Joe Biden about 590,000 extra votes, but doesn’t suggest who or how. Basler filed a lawsuit contending that “6,000 votes were flipped, over 400,000 votes were added and/or thousands of votes were removed in one or more statewide races.”

These claims haven’t survived scrutiny, especially in court. Basler’s lawsuit was tossed by a judge last summer, who ruled sweepingly that “no responsive pleadings or evidence was presented by these plaintiffs.”

But the claims live on. So far, Basler has raised $41,000 for his campaign from more than 200 donors, compared with only about $6,000 for the elections director incumbent, Julie Wise. At the fundraiser, Basler dismissively calls her “this girl, Julie Wise, running King County elections,” though she’s 43 and is seeking her third term.

Some past and present GOP candidates attended the fundraiser, including Keith Swank, the party’s nominee last year in the 10th Congressional District, and Carmen Goers of Kent, who is the leading GOP challenger for 2024 in the 8th Congressional District against Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Issaquah.

If Republicans were going to flee this zombie, they would have done so by now. Instead it is consuming them. It feels inevitable, because the madman who unleashed it, Trump, remains the leader of the party.

You could see brains being eaten in real time this past week, when Republicans in Congress briefly nominated for speaker of the House someone who doesn’t believe the last election was stolen, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota. He lasted all of three hours, withdrawing after Trump condemned him.

Election denial probably won’t get that kind of traction with voters. Of some concern though was the apocalyptic framing at the Basler fundraiser.

“The Civil War was bad,” Keshel tells the crowd. “But this is something that threatens to completely undo the sinews of the republic if we don’t get control of the system of elections.”

Adds Basler: “It’s the ballot or the bullet. We don’t want that, but that’s the potential.”

It’s fine to prod the vote-counting system for weaknesses, to demand recounts and to challenge election results in court. But after three years of continuously claiming fraud when none has been found, you become the fraud.

During the fundraiser, Basler shows a cartoon TV ad he made for his campaign. It features a zombie clutching a ballot, with “Democrat” checked off three times. The zombie says: “In life, I voted Republican.” The ad shows Biden’s vote total passing Trump’s with the words “it’s a miracle!!!” as the zombie struggles around amid news reports from 2020 calling that year’s election “the most secure in history.”

At the close of the 30-second spot, Basler pops up and says: “Well? Somebody’s lyin’.”

Yes, somebody is. The truth is out there — it’s right there, as it happens — but will enough of society collectively see it in time to save democracy? Stay tuned, because as the TV ad fades out, the crowd at the fundraiser cheers.

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