At the whimpering end of a desultory, underwhelming primary election campaign – total Seattle turnout is likely to end up only in the mid-30s, which stands as a sharp indictment of the overall quality of this year’s political debate – the results were surprisingly decisive. It’s election night, with only about half the ballots counted and we already know who’s moving on to the general election in all of the big races. That may be the night’s biggest surprise.
Here are my hot takes on tonight’s results:
At the top of the marquee, in the mayor’s race, same as it ever was. We had some different faces in this year’s contest, but the results repeated the exact same pattern of the last two mayoral races in 2013 and 2017. In those primaries a moderate progressive candidate with establishment, business (and some labor) support finished solidly in first, trailed by a left activist ideological warrior backed by left-flank labor and the Stranger.
That’s what happened this time too. In a crowded, 15 candidate field, after running a cautious, somewhat ideologically blurry but relatively mistake free primary campaign, former Council President Bruce Harrell did very well, topping 38 percent in the initial tally. Running in the left lane, current City Council president Lorena Gonzalez came in at a solid 28 percent, a whopping 20 points ahead of third place finisher Colleen Echohawk.
The margin between Harrell and Gonzalez should tighten as the late count comes in, but the results at the top are basically as expected. Those two started out the frontrunners by a decisive margin, and finished as the frontrunners, by an even more decisive margin. In both of the previous mayoral races, the moderate progressive went on to win in November. Maybe 2021 will be different, but right now, with Gonzalez running a semi-incumbency campaign defending the current approaches of an unpopular City Council, this contest looks like Harrell’s race to lose.
The other serious and semi-serious candidates – Echohawk, Farrell, Sixkiller, Houston, Randall and Langlie– all lagged far behind, underperforming expectations across the board (well, mine, anyway). That’s largely because, despite the obvious vulnerability presented by Harrell’s former service and Gonzalez’s current service on an unpopular City Council, the rest of the field inexplicably let Harrell and Gonzalez sail through the primary largely unchallenged.
Aside from Colleen Echohawk’s campaign, which – too little, too late – put up a tv ad directly contrasting her with Harrell and Gonzalez on who could offer solutions for homelessness, the other candidates all played it milquetoast safe. Through the endless rounds of progressive interest group forums, where every candidate was expected to mouth empty progressive “right answer” pieties (and mostly obliged), none of them tried to break from the herd or channel and sharpen public frustration or draw blood (well, Langlie did try, but he ran too far right and anyway ran a surprisingly quiet campaign, never going after Gonzalez or Harrell by name).
As another politically astute friend texted me tonight, “If this doesn’t illustrate the incredible miscalculation by the field to not go after Bruce and Lorena and the Council months and months ago, I don’t know what else would get through the dense skulls of these people. Seattle Nice campaign, with no clarity of message for the alternative. All the challengers played it safe and proved to be a bunch of morons.” My friend’s wording might be a little on the harsh side, but as analysis of campaign strategy goes he’s not wrong.
Along with Harrell doing well, so did Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson in the race for the open citywide Council seat being vacated by Gonzalez. She’s solidly ahead of activist Nikkita Oliver in the initial count, when polling-based expectations were that Oliver, who is a celebrity amongst the Twitter left and has consolidated strong backing from most of labor, would finish solidly in first. The late count will tighten this race too, but Nelson goes into the general with some momentum.
Another minor surprise: Republican Ann Davison, who won the backing of the Seattle Times, leads in the initial count in the City Attorney’s race. Incumbent Pete Holmes is in second, slightly ahead of “abolitionist” Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. But Thomas-Kennedy scored the Stranger’s endorsement over Holmes, and she should leapfrog him easily in the later counts. As multiple people texted or emailed me tonight, “Pete Holmes is toast.” Indeed he is. As with the open Council seat, that sets up a stark contrast and difficult to predict match up in the general. Seattle’s divides are getting deeper. What a cluster those two races are going to be.
Final point: going into the voting, I was hearing a lot of loose talk from many politico types that the Stranger’s electoral influence is likely waning, and that the paper’s endorsement probably doesn’t mean as much as it did even four years ago. I didn’t think that was correct, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure. I am now. Tonight’s results again demonstrated that the Stranger still picks the left lane candidate (Gonzalez, Oliver, Thomas-Kennedy) to come out of the primary (unless you think it was all those cherries that got Gonzalez through). But the big question about the Stranger remains: while they can get their favored left warrior through the primary, can they get that candidate across the finish line in first place in November? With the right track/wrong track numbers in the polling the worst I’ve ever seen them, and the current City Council posting approval ratings mired in the low-to-mid 30s, that’s going to be quite the challenge.