GOP: At sea in Bellevue without Rodney Tom?

Downtown Bellevue Credit: J.C. Winkler/Flickr

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.

The Gold Coast is simply a microcosm, but the overall trend is clear: The Republican Party can no longer rely on heavy margins among wealthy suburbanites to carry districts like the 48th.  

A diversity boom

The other pattern working against the Republican Party in the 48th LD is the increasing ethnic diversity of the district. In 1990, the voting-age minority population on the Eastside was barely above 10%. Now, over a third of voting-age residents of the 48th are minorities. While the minority populations remain small in both the Gold Coast (15% non-white) and Kirkland (20%) parts of the district, they’re becoming political forces in the 48th LD portions of both Redmond (37%) and Bellevue (40%).

A map of the district’s racial demographics appears below. Green areas are majority-minority; purple areas are majority white.

Of course, a lot of the 48th LD’s non-white population is immigrant, many of whom are not eligible to vote. It will probably be a long time before the minority vote share in the 48th LD nears its proportion of the 18+ population. However, with the Asian-American and Latino becoming increasingly Democratic in recent years, demographic trends alone would cause the 48th GOP to slip about a percentage point per year — no help in a district where they’ve suffered years of major losses.

The GOP: Down, but not out?

Now that we’ve looked at the district’s historical trends, let’s step back and look at where the district stands today. At the federal level, the 48th is now staunchly Democratic. Even with his 2012 reduced performance, Obama prevailed in the 48th by a convincing 26-point margin – 61.7% to Mitt Romney’s 35.9%. Much closer was the 2012 gubernatorial race, which saw Democrat Jay Inslee defeating Republican Rob McKenna by a 6-point spread, 53.0% to 47.0%. A precinct map of the Inslee/McKenna race is below.

This was a close race, but an alarming one for Republicans, in respect to their prognosis in the 48th. Rob McKenna is a moderate-presenting political technocrat who’s traditionally over-performed the Republican ballot in the Seattle suburbs. Nonetheless, he lost the 48th LD to Inslee by 6 points, about twice Inslee’s statewide margin. Forget Goldwater country: The 48th LD is now more Democratic than Washington state.

The good news for the Republicans is limited. A compelling argument can be made that the 48th LD’s voters are willing to split their ticket on local races. In 2010, Rodney Tom — then newly a Democrat — defeated his Republican opponent, Gregg Bennett, by just 52.7% to 47.3%.That was a very good year for Republicans. At least for now, national polls suggest 2014 leans slightly Democratic.

With Tom gone, the Republicans are probably left relying on a partisan tidal wave to carry their 48th LD candidate — should a viable one materialize — across the finish line. That’s a much worse place than they were in a month ago. It’s also a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1980s, when Bellevue was the shining city on the GOP’s hill.

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