The national election turned out to be significantly closer than the polling indicated, but Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States. Biden’s relatively close win means that Trumpism – defined as white small town and rural resentment of cultural and demographic change – will remain the beating heart of the Republican Party for some time to come. The era of the Trump presidency is (thankfully) coming to a (predictably ignominious and graceless) close.
But down-ballot the story was very different. Hope for a big blue wave nationally failed to materialize. The Democrats’ majority in the Congressional House shrank, with Republicans gaining around 10 seats (there are still about a dozen uncalled races nationally, so the final number is unknown). Rather than retaking the Senate, Dems disappointingly only posted a net gain of one seat so far, to 48 seats. Yes, two runoffs in Georgia won’t be decided until early January, so a 50-50 split (with Vice President Harris holding the tie-breaking vote) is still possible, but in all likelihood Republicans are going to hold on to both of those Georgia seats, and preserve Mitch McConnell’s grip on the upper chamber.
Similarly in Washington State, there was no big blue wave. Earlier this year, local Dems, looking at the prospect of Trump on the ballot and at the pathetically weak field of Republican gubernatorial candidates, were giddy at the prospect of substantially expanding their already hefty margins in the Washington State House and Senate chambers. Expectations moderated somewhat after strong Republican turnout in the August primary, but Dems were still expecting to pick up seats going into Election Day.
That didn’t happen. The top of the ticket was a foregone conclusion. Biden easily bested Trump, and Gov. Jay Inslee easily won a third-term against third-string opponent Loren Culp, who mounted a quixotic culture war campaign – one designed to maximally alienate the increasingly culturally cosmopolitan voters of Seattle and King County. Culp’s campaign was rooted in the traditional culture touchstones of family, faith, freedom, and firearms.
But down ballot, where Dems held a 57-41 majority in the House and 28-21 in the Senate before the election, it now appears that those margins won’t budge. State Dems did take back one relatively low profile statewide office — Treasurer — after Republicans in something of a fluke won it in 2016, but incumbent Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman fairly easily fended off a spirited campaign from Seattle legislator Gael Tarleton.
So, largely a ho hum, status quo result rather than a blue wave election in Washington State, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some significant shifts that occurred under the surface of the topline stasis. Here are the five main takeaways:
- Democratic dominance in Washington State seems increasingly baked into the political cake. Dems didn’t make gains, but their margins were already large, after major gains in previous elections. Republican performance at the top of the ticket in King County, where about a third of the state’s voters reside, was godawful. Culp got about 25 percent of the King County vote, Trump even less. Every King County legislative district remains in the hands of Democrats. In fact, in probably half or even a little more of the legislative districts in Washington State Republicans aren’t really competitive anymore, which means – while Republican pipe dreams of a near term comeback remain alive and well – Dems are likely going to be in control of statewide government for the foreseeable future.
- The red parts of the state are getting redder. Say what you will about Trump and Culp – and I don’t have much good to say about either – but they really did juice conservative turnout in small town and rural Washington. As a result, Republicans easily knocked out two long-standing moderate Democratic incumbents – Sen. Dean Takko and Rep. Brian Blake – in the 19th legislative district in Southwest Washington. The images of the protests in Portland and Seattle, and the partisan response to COVID (I’m told “King Inslee” signs blanketed the 19th) clearly boosted the conservative vote as well. That also contributed to 3rd Congressional District (SW WA) Republican US Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s surprisingly easy 13 point re-election win over a strong Dem candidate, Carolyn Long (she only beat Long by five points in 2016), and to the Dem incumbent US Rep. Kim Schrier’s alarmingly close re-election in the 8th Congressional District (which runs east across the Cascades from Issaquah to Ellensburg and Wenatchee) over a relatively unknown and under-funded opponent (this is going to be a district to watch closely in 2022). Dems had also hoped to win state Senate and House seats in the 10th LD (Island County) and a House seat in the 17th LD (Vancouver), and led in these races on election night, but have lost all of them as the later counts have swung red.
- The number of Dem legislators in Olympia remain the same, but the caucuses are getting bluer – and browner. Offsetting the loss of the more conservative Takko in the 19th LD, a more progressive Democrat, Twina Nobles, a former head of the Tacoma Urban League, defeated incumbent Republican Steve O’Ban in the 28th LD. In the House, more progressive challenger David Hackney wiped out incumbent Zack Hudgins in a Dem-on-Dem fight in the 11th LD (South Seattle/Tukwila/Renton). Add in the victories of April Berg in the 44th LD (Mill Creek/Snohomish/Marysville), Alicia Rule in the 42rd (Whatcom County), as well as Jamila Taylor and Jesse Johnson in the 30th LD (Federal Way), and the Dem caucus in the House – with five new Black faces – became bluer and more diverse.
- With the retreat of the increasingly conservative Republican Party into red, rural Washington, many of the fiercest political battles in our state are intra-party showdowns pitting movement progressive Dems against moderate progressive Dems. This was the story of the state Senate race in the 5th LD, which turned into a massive proxy war between labor and business interests as SEIU and other unions spent heavily in an apparently unsuccessful effort to oust moderate Dem Sen. Mark Mullet. In all, the two sides poured nearly $4 million into this race – an astounding sum for a legislative race – and as of Tuesday afternoon Mullet appears likely to squeak out the narrowest of victories (he leads by 82 votes) over Ingrid Anderson, a left activist nurse put forward by the unions. The same dynamic was in paly with former Tacoma mayor and Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Marilyn Strickland easy victory over legislator Beth Doglio in the open seat 10th Congressional District race in the South Puget Sound. The other lesson of these results is that a full-throated embrace of movement left progressivism delivers rapidly diminishing electoral returns the father one gets from the Emerald City.
- Demographics may not be destiny, but they are king. Just as happened nationally, here in Washington State the Democratic Party continues to consolidate gains in educated suburbs that until recently tilted pink-to-red, but are increasingly losing working class, non-college voters. The expected Dem gains this cycle never materialized, and if anything the exurban and rural parts of the state where collars are bluer are turning redder. Joe Biden did flip one county – Clallam, on the Kitsap peninsula — that went red in 2016 back to blue, but the southwest Washington counties that voted for Trump in 2016 tended to get redder. The red flag nationally for Democrats is the small but noticeable gains that Trump made with Latino voters and Black men. Democrats have already largely shed the white working class; if their increasing embrace of Seattle-style cultural cosmopolitanism starts to push non-white working class voters towards Republicans, then the tide really could start to turn in Washington State.