With Rodney Tom out of the running, the 48th Legislative District is gearing up for a good ol’-fashioned red-on-blue rumble. That’s bad news for the Republicans in a district where they’ve suffered a 20-year bleed of support.
Everything changed in the swing district with the announcement by incumbent Sen. Rodney Tom — the Republican, turned Democrat, turned Majority Coalition Caucus leader — that he would not run for re-election, citing personal and family issues.
This election is no longer about Tom. Instead, it’s an open seat race, likely to come down to a conventional Democrat versus a conventional Republican. That’s bad news for the Republicans. Crosscut's John Stang recently noted that the GOP now restarts the fight with a candidate problem – or, rather, the problem of having no candidate. I’d like to explain why the GOP also has a 48th LD problem. Namely, their problem is that it isn’t 1988 anymore.
Let’s start with a broad overview of the district, and then dive into the Republicans’ 48th LD dilemma.
Downtown Bellevue J.C. Winkler/Flickr
The 48th LD is a suburban district that encompasses portions of Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland. It also contains the entirety of the Gold Coast, an affluent enclave consisting of the cities of Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Medina, and Yarrow Point. The Gold Coast is home to some of the most expensive properties and highest income-earners in Washington State. Six-digit incomes are the norm. Homes generally go for well over one million. These towns exemplify the profile that gives the 48th LD a reputation for big money. This reputation is not without merit: by virtually every estimate, the 48th ranks within Washington’s five wealthiest legislative districts.
For a district often caricaturized as a haven for BMW-driving Neiman Marcus customers and Microsoft managers, it might be surprising that the 48th isn’t a solid first in wealth. The truth is that this area has never been uniformly wealthy: Bellevue especially has some modest post-War developments, and the 48th is dotted with a considerable number of apartments. All walks of life are represented in the 48th LD.
The Republican Party’s problem is that certain walks of life are particularly prevalent in the 48th LD, and they’re populations that have become particularly nettlesome for the GOP in the past 25 years: first, wealthy, educated suburbanites; and second, ethnic minorities.
Old money and the decline of the Republican Party
The wealth of much of the 48th LD should not be understated. The Lake Washington Gold Coast community of Hunts Point is among the wealthiest in the country. It boasts a per-capita income of $139,032, about five times the national average. The other Gold Coast communities are not far behind: Yarrow Point at $105,938; Medina at $96,978; and Clyde Hill at $93,769.
Traditionally, moneyed suburbanites are a staunchly Republican bloc. That just isn’t true anymore.
These communities are still somewhat Republican. The GOP’s problem is that they aren’t nearly as Republican as they used to be. Fifty years ago, this was Goldwater country, a hub of rock-ribbed country club conservatism that emphasized fiscal issues. The last 30 years, though, have seen a marked shift in this constituency, which peaked with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.
Take a look at the table below, which displays Presidential election returns in the Gold Coast portion of the 48th. In 2000, George W. Bush won these communities by a margin of 23.5 points. By his 2004 re-election, Bush’s margin had been cut in half, despite Bush improving his national margin by a few points. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate ever to carry the Gold Coast, defeating John McCain by 5.5 points.
Presidential Election results in the Gold Coast communities, 2000-2012 Presidential Elections
A notable Democratic regression occurred in 2012, with Mitt Romney prevailing over Obama by 6.6 points. This was a big swing toward the GOP in a year where Washington state only budged a few points. Nonetheless, even with this retraction, Romney’s 2012 Gold Coast was a full 17 points smaller than Bush’s 12 years earlier.
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