Backlash? What Backlash? Seattle Primary Voters Speak


The votes are now (almost) all counted from last week’s primary election, and the general election field in each of the seven district City Council races is now set.  With the results in, there are few things we can deduce from the results. 

First, the outcomes of the primary races mostly played out as expected. The basic pattern of Seattle municipal politics has held: each race advanced one finalist rooted more in the left lane, and the other in the more moderate lane. The one minor upset is that in District 5 up north (Lake City) diversity consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner, with 24.4 percent of the vote, will comfortably finish second over progressive establishment and organized labor fave Nilu Jenks. Moderate lane candidate Cathy Moore, a former judge and City Council legislative aide, will finish solidly in first (at 30.7 percent).  

Credit The Stranger for ObeySumner’s primary success. The Stranger Election Control Board upended the D5 race by, surprisingly, throwing their support to ObeySumner – whom they approvingly cited, at the launch of OberySumner’s candidacy, as “a Black, queer, nonbinary, neurodivergent, multi-disabled person who has experienced homelessness” – over Jenks, who (aside from losing The Stranger) ran by far the strongest primary campaign in the crowded D5 field.

ObeySumner may check a lot of intersectional identity boxes, but they (ObeySumner uses they/them pronouns) ran a relatively weak primary campaign (as did Moore). Still, that Stranger backing was more than enough to catapult them through to the general, where it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against Moore in this moderate-leaning district. 

Otherwise the outcomes are as expected: attorney Rob Saka vs. climate activist Maren Costa in D1, incumbent Tammy Morales vs. C/ID community leader Tanya Woo in D2, former Transportation Choices Coalition Executive Director Alex Hudson vs. Joy Hollingsworth, whose family owns a marijuana producer/processor business and who works on food insecurity issues, in D3 [disclosure: I am consulting for Hudson in this race], Deputy Director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture Maritza Rivera vs. tech entrepreneur Ron Davis in D4, incumbent Dan Strauss vs, Fremont Chamber head Pete Hanning in D6, and incumbent Andrew Lewis vs, former naval intelligence officer Bob Kettle in D7. As is typical, every single one of these candidates (including Moore and ObeySumner) was endorsed by either the Seattle Times or The Stranger. 

Second, with the City Council’s overall favorability ratings mired in the high 20s or low 30s (depending on the poll), and with twice as many Seattle voters saying the city is on the wrong track as say it is on the right track, the conventional wisdom for much of this cycle has been that we are in the midst of a moderate backlash against the excesses of a too-left Council. In other words, a reprise of the central dynamic in the 2021 races that elected Bruce Harrell mayor, Sara Nelson at-large to the Council, and Ann Davison as City Attorney. 

That conventional wisdom appears to be wrong. There is no indication from the primary results that this is a moderate wave election. Two of the three incumbents running for re-election, Tammy Morales in District 2 (SE Seattle) and Dan Strauss in District 6 (Wallingford, Ballard, Phinney), finished above 50 percent in the primary, which is a rough rule of thumb indication that they’re in decent shape heading into the general. Primary turnout overall is barely above 35 percent, which is on the low side, another indication that this year there’s no surge of angry, pitchfork-wielding moderate voters seeking to reel in the excesses of a too radical Council. 

The third incumbent running, Andrew Lewis in District 7 (Downtown, Queen Anne), clearly hurt himself politically with his recent high profile, surprise swing vote against the misdemeanor drug possession/public drug use ordinance that failed 5-4. Lewis received about 43.5 percent of the primary vote, which certainly puts him in the electoral danger zone, and his moderate lane opponent Kettle is likely to hammer Lewis hard as being too far left, particularly on public safety. But the drug possession law will be voted on again before the general election, and Lewis has indicated he intends to support it this time, so he will have an opportunity to make amends with his constituents. 

Charging toward the center may work. Incumbent Dan Strauss in District 6 had a surprisingly strong showing in the primary, after aggressively repositioning himself in his campaign messaging as a pro-cop, pro-public safety, anti-defund moderate, stampeding away from the radical defund/abolition positions he had (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) embraced in 2020. Expect Andrew Lewis to do the same over the next few months – this video he released right before the primary, in which he touts himself as a champion of public safety downtown, is probably a pretty good indication of what’s to come.

Strauss’ and Lewis’ rush to the center on public safety is the other important takeaway from this primary. This may not be a moderate wave election this year, but the flip side of that coin is that we are witnessing, in real time, the final death rattles of the left activist abolition/defund/stop the sweeps pipe dreams of 2020, which not so long ago had been performatively championed by so much of Seattle’s political ruling class (including both Strauss and Lewis). 

Those dreams had already been badly wounded by the ’21 backlash, but now, watching how the successful left lane candidates message this year, it’s clear there is little appetite anymore for radical left disemboweling of municipal institutions like the police and courts. That ship has sailed – or more accurately, sunk, as crime, public use of hard drugs, and street disorder have grown as public concerns in the post-pandemic era (the clearest exception among the left lane candidates is ObeySumner, who is running on a somewhat muted version of the 2020-style left activist agenda; even Morales, by far the farthest left incumbent seeking re-election, mentions zippo about cutting police funding or stopping sweeps on her campaign issues page).

You know the Overton window has shifted towards the center when left lane candidates like Ron Davis in District 4 are sending out late mailers touting their support for five minute police response times – something that would require adding hundreds of additional officers – in an obvious effort to blur the contrast on policing and public safety that his moderate opponent, Maritza Rivera, has been staking out.

So what to expect in the general? With no apparent backlash wave building, each of these seven races will be fought out district by district, matchup by matchup, campaign by campaign. Homelessness, public safety, and affordability will remain top issues. Also expect increased conversation about taxation and potential budget cuts, as the City’s “Revenue Stabilization Task Force” issues its recommendations for potential tax increases this week, and the Council begins what may turn into hotly contested budget deliberations in September. 

Many of the general election races are likely to be close, and could go either way. That said, I would say the moderate lane candidates in D1 (Saka), D4 (Rivera) and D5 (Moore) have an edge, given the demographics and ideological composition of those districts. In Districts 2 and 3, where the electorate is significantly younger and renter-heavy, the more progressive candidates (Morales in D2, Alex Hudson in D3) have the advantage, for the same reason. But this is Seattle, where our divides are deep and the margins are small, so none of these outcomes are certain. 

Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.


  1. I’d also say the moderate candidate has edge in District 7.

    As for District 3, perhaps the analysis has an air of wishful thinking on the writers part.

    Add in the selection of a candidate to replace the departing Mosqueda and the departure of Sawant and the council could be considerably more moderate.

  2. A lot will change with the General Election, when we can expect nearly twice as many to vote as in this low-turnout Primary. For one thing, we can expect BIG Independent Expenditure (IE) campaigns to do what candidate campaigns did not and, likely, will not: go negative. Big negative, especially against the incumbents. People will learn that Dan Strauss lied about his record nearly as badly as Trump does. They will see the video of Andrew Lewis, sweating and shaking, vote NO on the drug bill. They will find out that Tammy Morales has cancelled half of the committee meetings of the committee she chairs, which doesn’t do much in the first place; not only does Morales not show up in the Community, she doesn’t show up in the City Council.

    Talking history, two years ago, Nicole Thomas Kennedy won the Primary for City Attorney, and Nikkita Oliver won the Primary for Seattle Council Position 9. Bruce Harrell barely bested Lorena Gonzalez in the Mayor’s race. Yet Ann Davidson won the City Attorney’s seat by several points, Sara Nelson won City Council by a good amount, and Bruce Harrell absolutely trounced Lorena Gonzalez to become Mayor, where polls show he continues to enjoy strong favorability. Bruce will have some sway.

    It will certainly be interesting to see if Rob Saka, who has yet to expose any passionate embrace of any position and is, at best, inauthentic, will catch fire against the fiery Maren Costa in District 1.

    How much will race play out? Not just in the overwhelmingly white D1, but in District 3, with Joy Hollingsworth, a Black woman whose family legacy matters in this City and certainly D3, against Alex Hudson, a white woman whose personal past addiction issues might resonate with that of some of the residents?

    The votes may be nearly done counting, but the money has just begun to dribble in. Money will drive attention; certainly, those not getting it will fixate on who gave and OHGAWDTHEYMIGHTBEDEVELOPERS! rather than what their message is and how it is better than the message of their opponent.

  3. The reality that endorsements by The Stranger (left-leaning) and The Seattle Times (center-left) dictate the outcome of city council primaries is disturbing. Discouraging factors are: the early August primary, when few pay much attention; the withering of political parties or other organizations (such as the Municipal League) that validate candidates; the rise of the main party (People Like Me), overshadowing substantive issues; the strong influence of unions and developers on local politics (squeezing out others); the requirement that candidates be from poverty or be minorities limiting the pool; and the irrelevance of main issues (such as street repair, taxes, poor governance) in the election debates. Local democracy is in serious trouble right here in River City.

    • While I agree with you on many of those points, David, the “early August primary, when few pay much attention”, is not substantiated by actual data.

      The Washington state legislature switched the old September Primary to the 3rd week in August back in 2006. The last municipal election under the old September Primary saw a mere 30% of King County voters cast ballots, the same as 2003, but significantly better than the 2002 legislative/federal election Primary, with a horrible 26% turnout.

      Beyond the “low turnout”, currently standing at a remarkably consistent (with 20 years ago!) 30.11% county-wide is enormous variance within each Seattle District -a whopping 9.85 point difference between the high turnout D6 with low turnout D2.

      Likewise, there is a HUGE variance of registered voters. D6, again the “champion” with 77,322 voters, has 18,885 more registered than the (shockingly low) D7, at a mere 58,437 [Data geeks, unite!]. By law, each district has as close to the same population as can be done. These variances in both voter registration and turnout are ripe for Masters and PhD theses, but also indicate room for candidates to move.

      Details, with turnout as of 8/8/23 King County Elections Report:

      District # Registered Voters % Turnout
      1 74,395 36.22
      2 65,763 30.51
      3 73,844 36.12
      4 60,671 37.67
      5 69,655 35.15
      6 77,322 40.42
      7 58,437 32.43

      Maybe we quit harping on “low voter turnout due to August primary” and start putting in the hard work needed to find and/or rebuild civic and good government groups.

  4. I have to hope people return from the PNW version of the Hamptons awake, ready to down a triple espresso, think — and vote.

    Re: Cathy Moore running a “Weak” campaign: what does that mean? She met with local folks at the local brewery and deeply impressed us all in the Broadview neighborhood. She is one strong person. Empathetic, smart, open minded. That is extremely rare in politics.

    One thing to keep in mind when assessing the relative strength of political tactics: small is beautiful. The Right took over much of America one small, inconsequential PTA meeting at a time. Conversations matter.

    I am deeply dismayed by the choices in District 3 where I grew up. I don’t care what color, gender or private sexual preferences a person has. I do care if they make their living dealing drugs, and are on record saying they think on-street drug use is just fine. Choice/no choice in District 3, which has outsized influence on the rest of the city.

  5. We need to talk about The Stranger.

    Decades ago, I considered several sources when casting my vote and among those sources, I valued The Stranger’s POV.

    I no longer value their opinion. Why? Because their reporting is essentially vapid click bait opinion pieces meant to rile.

    Yes, I’ve gotten older, and TS would be the first to accuse me of being old, out of touch, a boomer, a capitalist, a millionaire, and i am none of those except older. And i am wiser.

    And i see that the rag i used to love is a sad tool pandering to the unwashed, angry, and uninformed hipster. Wait! That’s me.

  6. What would it take for you to engage with the actual arguments for defunding the police? Or to not label as “moderate” a return to the cruel, expensive, ineffective drug policies of the 80s? Or to treat the argument that sweeps of our unhoused neighbors are also murderous and futile? Or to not use “intersectionalism” as shorthand for absurd leftist overreach?

    Yeah, don’t worry, no one in power actually cares about the unhoused in this city, so you’re safe. The cruelty will continue.

    • No one is proposing jacking up and randomly searching every 20 something person of color (or in my case back in the day, white dudes with long hair) to see if they maybe have drugs on them – why the hell shouldn’t someone who can’t be bothered to hide their drug use by ducking into an alley or bathroom the way the rest of us used to expect total impunity for their actions?

      The BS comparison between going back to allowing cops to occasionally bust folks shooting up on sidewalks and smoking fentanyl on buses and a Giuliani-style “War on Drugs” as it was practiced in the 1980’s is incredibly dishonest.


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