All the numbers are in. Time for one last look at election 2012 and, more importantly, a look ahead at the immediate future of politics nationally and in Washington state. As the GOP seeks to reset itself it should actually look to the early days of the George W. Bush administration for guidance.
In terms of partisan politics, the election produced no real surprises. Republicans gained a net of one seat each in the state House and Senate. Sen. Maria Cantwell and all the congressional incumbents of both parties cruised to reelection. Democrats easily held the seat Norm Dicks vacated. Republicans have to be disappointed that they didn’t win the new 1st Congressional District, or at least come closer, but the real downer for the GOP was once again failing to win a major statewide race. Republicans have now failed to win a Senate race since 1994, and have failed to win a gubernatorial race since 1980.
Republican Rob McKenna won 10 percent of the Democratic vote, and 97 percent of the Republicans. He won among independents 53 percent to 47 percent. He captured the votes of 13 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama, and 18 percent of those who voted for Maria Cantwell. And yet he lost, 51.5 to 48.5 percent. Why?
Objectively, Democrat Jay Inslee defeated McKenna for two reasons:
1. McKenna lost King County 62 percent to 38 percent. Take away King County, and McKenna wins the election 53 percent to 47 percent. In fact, take away just the 7th congressional district (Seattle) and McKenna is elected by 88,000 votes. To win, a Republican must limit the damage in King County, and capture 40 percent of the vote.
2. Turnout was down overall, but not in King County. Compared to 2008, turnout was up by 1 percent in Walla Walla county and virtually unchanged in King County (83.9 percent to 83.6 percent). In the other 37 counties turnout was down, and, in many areas, down dramatically. As I wrote just after the election, turnout helped create an electorate that was even more Democratic than in 2008.
McKenna didn’t do well enough in King County, and there weren’t enough Republican votes cast in the rest of the state do to make up the difference.
Subjectively, many theories are advanced after every election. In this case, I’m not sure there is anything Team McKenna could have done to change the outcome. Republicans just don’t win major statewide elections in blue states in Democratic years.
Politics was once about economics. Put very simply, rich people, professionals, owners and managers were Republicans, while poor people and blue collar workers were Democrats. Now politics in America is about race and culture. White voters — including white women — lean Republican. Non-white voters are overwhelming Democratic. Those who attend church weekly are strongly Republican; those who say they never attend church are strongly Democratic, according to exit polls nationally and in Washington state.
America is changing, both in terms of attitudes and demographics. The internet has been full of articles on this subject since the election, but the best concise summary of the situation I have seen comes from Moore Information, a Republican pollster in Portland. Moore writes:
But the math behind the inexorable drop in white voters as a percentage of the population is a truth that Republicans cannot deny. All things being equal, George Bush would not have been elected in 2000 with an electorate that looked like 2012. And Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 with an electorate that looked like 2000. The makeup of America is changing and in order for Republicans to remain relevant they need to recognize this hard reality.
Smart Republican leaders have seen this change coming for a long time. Eleven years ago I attended my first Republican National Committee meeting as the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party The theme of that meeting was how the GOP needed to change to meet the needs of a changing America. The Bush team saw the demographic trends that are becoming manifest now, and they knew they had to lead the party in a different direction. The emphasis was on tax cuts to spur growth, education reform and even immigration reform. The tone was one of bipartisan compromise, greater diversity and “compassionate conservatism.” Remember George W. Bush working with Ted Kennedy?
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