Love him or hate him, iconoclastic Democratic State Sen. Tim Sheldon cuts a figure. Mustachioed and fond of suspenders, Sheldon looks in his element in the woods or on a longshore dock.
The senator, who has held his seat since 1997, appeals to a certain sort of American who once was a mainstay in the Democratic Party: the working-class white voter. This demographic has a complicated electoral history in the United States. Some areas, like the coal fields of West Virginia, have seen a precipitous drop in Democratic support over the last few decades as working class whites fled the party. In other areas, the change has been more muted. Democratic strongholds have faded to the palest blue. Sheldon’s 35th District, based in Mason County (Shelton) and rural portions of the West Sound, is one area where there is still some Democratic strength despite the weakening of the union ties that connected the party and working class whites.
Over the past decades, the battlegrounds in the state legislature have shifted. Cities and rural areas have gone out of play; suburban and exurban seats, from Mill Creek to Bellevue to Puyallup, have become the new battlegrounds. While cities have become ever more solidly Democratic, rural districts, in Eastern Washington and much of the interior West, have become Republican strongholds. That has made the unpredictable 35th District — with its bipartisan State House delegation, plus Sheldon — the target of considerable interest from conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike.
So Sheldon (below), whose maverick streak includes a chairmanship of the Washington branch of Democrats for Bush, is both a local institution and a top target in this election. Sheldon provides quirky representation for one of Western Washington’s quirkiest districts. With a mix of old industry and new money, trailers and luxury beach homes, loggers and lawyers, the 35th is one of Western Washington’s most economically diverse and politically complicated districts.
Whether all this makes the long-serving Sheldon vulnerable or not, Democrats think they see a chance to pick up one of the two seats they need to regain control of the state Senate. And their real hope is to eliminate him in the primary, on the hopes that the 35th is still blue enough to reject a conservative Republican in the fall general election.
The outcome in the 35th could have major significance for the rest of the state. If the Democrats regain control of the Senate, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would have a partner rather than an obstacle in their political aims. Their biggest goals are speeding up education improvements with more spending, protecting other state services from cuts, financing perhaps $12 billion in transportation projects with a gas tax hike and tackling climate change.
So, what stuff makes up the 35th — and whither the future of Tim Sheldon?
A blue district, faded purple
Like its neighbors, the coastal 19th and the Olympic Peninsula-centric 24th, the 35th has long been an enclave of blue-collar politics. In its halcyon days, Mason County was a logging powerhouse and its county seat, Shelton, was a union town. It was also a Democratic stronghold, voting to the left of state average in every election from 1936 through 1988. Before Seattle and its suburbs were deep-blue political powerhouses, Mason County was emblematic of the working-class Democratic constituency that kept Washington a swing state through much of the 20th century.
Like many comparable areas, Mason County has watched its industry and its Democratic partisanship decline. In 2012, bolstered by a strong performance in Shelton, Barack Obama won a 7-point victory here (52%-45%), a margin much smaller than his 15-point statewide win.
Credit: Kate Thompson
Although Mason County has a plurality of the 35th’s voters, the inclusion of left-leaning portions of Thurston County and right-leaning sections of Kitsap County makes Mason a good bellwether for the district, which voted for Obama in 2012 by 6 points. This makes the 35th the most conservative of the three Coastal districts.
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