“Foreseeable” is a very useful word in politics. For instance, perhaps not forever, but for the foreseeable future, the Republican Party is dead in Washington State, indeed dead on the entire west coast. This creates a new political reality that should concern all of us. Is a single party system healthy?
Once upon a time Washington was a Republican state, but it became Democratic leaning in the FDR landslide of 1932. Still, moderate Republicans, mostly from King County, won enough elections to remain relevant and leaven our politics.
Republicans won governors’ races in 1940, 1948, 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1980. Republicans elected Slade Gorton to the Senate in 1980, 1988, and 1994; and Republican Dan Evans won a special election to the Senate in 1983. Republican Attorneys General and Secretaries of State have been commonplace. And Republicans often won majorities in one of the two houses of the legislature, the most recent being the Republican majority in the Senate from 2014 until…..Trump.
That type of Republican success is now impossible because the national Republican message, unpopular here before Trump, is now toxic to suburban voters. You can’t win Washington without winning the suburbs, and that is where the GOP has collapsed.
The math just doesn’t work for Republicans now. They can’t win statewide without getting at least 40 percent of the vote in King County. They no longer come close to reaching that threshold in high visibility races. You can’t achieve legislative majorities without winning at least a few seats in King County. There are 24 districts outside King County where Republicans have a realistic chance of winning. Even if they run the table in those districts – which is highly unlikely – they still come up short of a majority (50 needed in the House, 25 needed in the Senate). And redistricting in 2022 is likely to further constrict the number of districts Republicans can compete for.
In the Trump elections of 2016, ’17 and ’18, Republicans lost the 8th congressional district for the first time and lost five seats in the Senate, and seven seats in the House, all from suburban districts, giving the D’s solid control of both chambers. There are now no Republican legislators from King County districts. (The 31st district, in the southeast corner of the county is still Republican, but two-thirds of the voters are in Pierce county.) There are no Republicans in Congress representing King, Pierce, Kitsap, or Snohomish counties.
And there is no realistic chance this trend is going to reverse itself next year or for as long as Trumpism defines the GOP. In the latest Elway poll, taken two months ago, only 21 percent of Washingtonians identified themselves as Republicans, an all time low, while 41 percent consider themselves Democrats. You can’t win elections when you are facing a 20-point partisan gap.
There once was an era when moderate King County Republicans played a major role in Washington state public policy. Just recall the names of Governor and Senator Dan Evans, Attorney General and Senator Slade Gorton, King County Executive and Governor John Spellman, Congressman and Lt. Governor Joel Pritchard, 8th district Representatives Rod Chandler, Jennifer Dunn, and Dave Reichert, Attorney General Rob McKenna, and legislative leaders like Dan McDonald, Dino Rossi, and Joe Fain.
That era is over. And that should matter to all of us.
Republicans, by winning elections, or threatening to win elections, helped keep the majority Democrats in the center. Liberals have long been frustrated by the centrism of Washington’s Democratic leaders, but the threat of Republican victories in the suburbs was a disincentive to overreaching by the liberal wing of the Democratic legislative caucuses. Now there is nothing to constrain or restrain a Seattle-based Democratic party. Great news if you are a progressive, but moderates, rural voters, and the business community should be concerned.
There has been bipartisan consensus for decades in support of policies to help Washington employers (including agriculture) compete, meaning support for free trade deals and strategic tax breaks to keep jobs here. How long can those policies be protected if the Democrats become more “anti-corporate” and face no real opposition?
In a rational world disaffected moderate Republicans, including those who were recently unelected, would be working with the business community, independents, and others to create a new message, disconnected from the Trumpified national GOP, that would compete with Democrats. But our rigid adherence to the two-party system isn’t rational, so no serious alternative party is in the works, at least not yet.
As I wrote earlier, our party system is realigning. That process threatens to make Washington a one-party state. We already see too many uncontested elections for the good of our democracy. What will it take for political and civic leaders decide it’s time for something more competitive and new?