They fully expected 2022 would produce a “red wave,” but Republicans in the Washington State Legislature found their star candidates washed away and lost ground in surprising results of the mid-term election. They are grappling to understand its results and take away its lessons lessons.
The GOP’s campaign chiefs from both houses took to a Zoom call on Tuesday night, sponsored by the Roanoke Conference, the annual January gathering at Ocean Shores where conservatives talk of ways to take back the Evergreen State.
“What we saw was history, not the history we wanted to see,” said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, 2nd District seatmate of House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox. It was, he added, “the biggest gut punch I have ever felt.”
When one party has control, in tumultuous times, the opposition expects gains. The Republicans targeted four competitive State Senate districts. “We recruited really great candidates for those seats . . . We had the right candidates and they were well funded,” said State Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup.
What happened? Democrats held all their State Senate seats, just as they did in the U.S. Senate. Democrats even picked up a seat with Sharon Shewmake’s win in the 42nd District, a longtime swing district in Whatcom County. The Dems will have a 29-20 Senate majority in January, and a 58-40 House advantage, where they also picked up a seat.
The Republicans recruited, set records for fundraising, held weekly training sessions for candidates, and mounted the best voter turnout operation in the party’s history. The issues such as crime “were there” in Barkis’ words. “The problem is, we didn’t see what was coming, the little thing called the Dobbs decision,” said Barkis.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, taking away a 49-year year right to abortion established by the 1973 ruling. Washington is a pro-choice state, having voted to legalize abortion three years before the Supremes’ ruling, and voting in 1991 to strengthen abortion rights.
“They (Democrats) put everything they had behind one issue,” said Barkis. He’s right. In the reelection campaign of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, of U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, and of legislative district mailings, the perceived threat to a woman’s right to choose became the omnipresent theme of Democrats’ 2022 campaign.
In Barkis’ words, “When the (August) primary hit, we had our first indication of what was to come.” At the same time, he added, “The data continued to tell us the issues were running in our direction.” The Republicans continued to hit their opponents as soft on crime, with a dose of Seattle bashing from the top of the ticket.
Donald Trump lost Washington by a half-million vote margin in 2020, showing strength only in the state’s “rust belt” of Southwest Washington. The Democrats’ strategy, under state chair Tina Podlodowski, has been to relentlessly identify Republicans with Trump, even though such GOP luminaries as ex-Sens. Dan Evans and Slade Gorton said they would not vote for him.
If abortion was part of the Democrats’ message, the charge of extremism made for a one-two punch. The approach worked for Democrats in states across the country, from electing a governor in Arizona to capturing control of the Michigan legislature.
In a normal mid-term election, said Sen. Gildon, the out-of-power party can expect to pick up 250 to 600 state legislative seats across America. A 2010 landslide allowed Republican-controlled legislatures to control redistricting over much of the country. Not so this year. “We moved two dozen seats across the country,” said Gildon.
The paradox is that most of Republicans’ candidate recruits were of the party’s pro-business wing, not MAGA Republicans. A pair of right-wing bomb throwers, State Reps. Vicki Kraft and Brad Klippert, left the Legislature to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress. A third, State Rep. Robert Sutherland, was unseated by a more moderate Republican.
Barkis and Gilden pointed to other reasons for party defeats. Popular Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman left to take a national post, leaving Gov. Jay Inslee to fill the job with moderate Democrat Steve Hobbs. In the election to fill the remainder of Wyman’s term, a trio of Republicans split the vote in August’s primary, leaving the general election race between Hobbs and independent Julie Anderson. “One thousand percent, we shot ourselves in the foot in that race,” said Gildon.
The GOP fielded promising House candidates in the 42nd and in the 10th District (mainly Island County) only to lose. “When the results came in, we were blown away by them,” said Barkis. Particularly true when Democrat Clyde Shavers beat first term GOP Rep. Greg Gilday by 211 votes in the 10th District.
As voting got underway, Shavers was hit by the accusation – made by his own father – that the candidate had exaggerated his own resume, notably about his claims of submarine service as a U.S. Navy officer. The Everett Herald withdrew its endorsement of Shavers, and backed Gilday. But, as Barkis pointed out, “a significant portion of people had already voted.”
“I don’t think that story ends yet: The guy (Shavers) will have zero credibility when he walks through the door, at least in our caucus,” Barkis added.
The Republican managers did not dump on Trump. They managed to speak with some humor, albeit touched with irony. But they acknowledged a harsh reality. Washington used to be a “purple” state, even a red state during a string of victories for Republican presidential candidates. No more. “A majority of voters in Washington state are Democrats: That’s where we are right now,” admitted Gildon.
As the GOP lawmakers spoke here, returns from the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia were flashing across TV screens. Late returns from urban Atlanta and its suburbs wiped out the lead of Republican Herschel Walker, built on votes from rural counties, and gave Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock a 100,000-vote victory.
It’s the same picture here, Democrats piling up big margins in Seattle and central Puget Sound counties. Eastside districts, once a Republican heartland, now return Democrats to the Legislature. Particular disappointments, said Gildon, were the 47th District in southeast King County, as well as the 26th District on the Kitsap Peninsula.
A question on campaign tactics came in from the audience. “Are we too nice?” asked Chad Magendanz, a former legislator who lost in a bid to reclaim his seat in the 5th District of eastern King County.
Not necessarily so, replied Barkis, while noting the Democrats’ barrage of negative ads. To which he added the observation that we are all sick and tired of the negative crap, but that is what we’ve evolved to.”
The planning now begins for 2024.