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Political realities of the 35th District: Did someone say ‘complicated’?

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.

It is tempting to presume the 35th parallels the other fading Democratic strongholds across the country: high unemployment, high disillusionment, and high tempers stoked by the urban, environmentalist elements of the Democratic Party. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Economic change has brought demographic change. So, what is the changing face of the 35th? 

Changing demographics

Some districts can be characterized in broad brush strokes — “well-to-do, educated urban whites,” “blue-collar rural Latinos,” etc.  Not so with the 35th. Quite a few disparate groups commingle in this diverse and sprawling district. And that brings a wide variety of views on everything from spending and taxes to education and transportation (which looks very different here than it does in more urbanized parts of the state).

  • Working-class whites. While the area may no longer be especially big on timber, with less than 15% of Shelton-area men employed in forestry or wood products, blue-collar jobs abound. So does poverty and unemployment, which run moderately higher than state average, mostly in Mason. Shelton and Belfair feature some of the lower Census-reported incomes in the state. Nearly a fifth of 35th Legislative District residents live in mobile homes, almost three times higher than state average. These are voters that value government protection of jobs and social safety net, but chafe at government intrusion into their wallet.
  • Well-to-do retirees. The 35th also has some money. The area’s relatively cheap land attracts retired folks looking for a good deal on acreage or waterfront property.  This trend shows up in the housing prices. Statewide, the average senior lives in a home valued 23% less than the average middle-aged householder. In Mason County, seniors have homes valued 28% higher than their middle-aged counterparts. This makes retirement communities like Seabeck and Tahuya among the district’s wealthiest.  This demographic skews heavily Republican, but also takes a skeptical attitude toward Tea Party.
  • Rural voters.  With less than 10% of voters living the boundaries of a city, the 35th is Washington’s least urbanized district – something to watch when it comes to issues like transportation.  Rural voters often rely on state roads, but are wary of funding them through the gas tax. Republican Travis Couture is emphasizing his staunch opposition to the tax, which disproportionately impacts rural residents.
  • Veterans. Although the 35th contains no military bases, veterans are a huge presence. Kitsap County ranks as the second most veteran-rich county in Washington, with 22% of residents over age 25 having served. Mason is just behind in third place, at 19%. Most of these veterans are retirees or long-term residents, making them a notable political force: unlike enlisted, they vote in strong numbers. And they generally tend toward the Republican Party, making them an important factor for Couture and Sheldon in this key race. 
  • Olympia outposters. Although Olympia is in the neighboring 22nd District, bedroom communities in western Thurston County are an important electorate in the 35th. The Thurston County portion of the district includes some truly rural areas around Grand Mound, but Olympia’s influence is felt strongly in the northwest.  Summit Lake offers remote living within an easy drive of the state capital.  The Steamboat Island Peninsula is heavily influenced by Olympia, down to its lefty tendencies. This is an area where liberal Democratic candidate Irene Bowling will need to excel to make it past the primary.
  • Environmentalism skeptics. Perhaps not surprisingly for a former timber area, the 35th seems to have many voters, even Democrats, who are skeptical of environmentalism. The most glaring recent example was 2010’s Referendum 52, when Washington voters narrowly rejected green energy bonds for public schools. Voters in what’s now District 35 rejected the measure by much more, around 60%. This could make Inslee's climate push problematic for many residents.  These voters are also a potential thorn in Bowling’s bid to coalesce the partisan Democratic vote.

Taken together, these groups coalesce into the rich purple of the 35th.

Mapping the 35th

How do the partisan boundaries fall in the 35th? Below is a map of the 2012 U.S. Presidential results for the 35th, when the district delivered Obama a 6-point margin.  Precincts in blue supported Obama, while red precincts went for Romney.

This map shows Mason County as largely Democratic territory, with almost all precincts voting for Obama, save some rural ones, especially near the Kitsap/Pierce border. Dems claim strongholds in Shelton and the Skokomish Indian Reservation. Thurston County also leans Democratic, with Olympia exurbs outvoting the traditionally rural GOP areas around Grand Mound. Finally, Kitsap County tilts slightly Republican. The 35th’s slice of the Democratic Bremerton metro is outvoted by rural and more Republican areas around Port Orchard and Seabeck.

The 2012 legislative races broke down similarly. Incumbent Rep. Kathy Haigh (D-Shelton) narrowly defeated Republican second-time challenger Dan Griffey, a firefighter from the Mason County community of Allyn. Haigh is viewed as vulnerable this year because she slightly lagged Obama’s performance in the district in 2012. The map below shows Haigh’s slight underperformance in Mason County, where Haigh trailed Obama by two points, and lost several precincts carried by the Dem presidential ticket.

The district is also capable of voting Republican, as evidenced by Republican Rep. Drew MacEwan’s 2012 open-seat victory against Democratic Mason County Commissioner Lynda Ring-Erickson. Ring-Erickson performed well in Thurston and Kitsap counties, outpacing Obama in the latter. However, MacEwan, chair of the Shelton Chamber of Commerce, delivered Ring-Erickson a 10-point shellacking in Mason County. With 2014 shaping up to be Republican-friendly, MacEwan can probably rest safe.

What does this mean for Tim Sheldon’s Democratic primary challenge? It’s hard to say, with little precedent. Clearly, the 35th LD is a heterodox Democratic district with some conservative leanings. Sheldon has a history of running higher than other entrenched Democratic incumbents, probably owing to significant Republican crossover support. Ousting Sheldon in an intra-party match will require successfully messaging to an electorate that speaks varied political dialects on transportation, taxes, and cultural issues.

How they win

In terms of messaging, Sheldon’s struggle is consolidating the middle. Primary voters are educated, but partisan. That means many Democrats will pick Bowling, despite her lower name recognition, while partisan GOPers are likely to opt for Republican-affiliated Couture. That means Sheldon trades on two virtues: independent appeal and personal reputation. He would be wise to emphasize his distinct local appeal, positioning himself as a populist power-broker watching out for the district's collective pocketbook.

That strategy would naturally see Sheldon chasing after likely Couture voters. That’s a smart strategy for several reasons. First, eliminating Couture would leave Sheldon with a match-up against Bowling. Sheldon would overwhelmingly carry Republicans, leaving Bowling with the tough task of racking up a comparable margin with Democrats against a Democratic-labeled opponent. Second, Couture is simply a better target: Sheldon’s anti-Big Government messaging plays well in the 35th, and Couture doesn’t have the money to counter it.

Couture will need to spend his limited resources attacking Sheldon’s credibility among Republicans. Sheldon may lean conservative, but he’s probably to the left of most 35th LD Republicans. If Couture can convince conservative voters that he’s their better advocate, he might move on to face Bowling in the final.  In many district, this run-to-the-right strategy might backfire badly. But, in the anti-tax, environmentalist-skeptical 35th, it’s probably Couture’s only hope.

Like Couture, Bowling would prefer a general election world without Tim Sheldon. Bowling starts with a built-in anti-Sheldon vote among Democrats. She will need to address bread-and-butter Democratic issues involving the social safety net. If she can make a case to moderate Democrats that Sheldon doesn’t have the interests of working people at heart, she could bump him in the primary. But voters who split their ticket between Obama and Rob McKenna may prove crucial, and those voters aren’t likely to be put off by Sheldon’s connection to the Majority Coalition.

Bowling and Couture certainly have their work cut out for them. Sheldon is an institution both in Olympia and to its rural western flank.  To eliminate him, both will need to walk a campaign messaging tightrope, mixing partisanship with populism. Conventional wisdom says that the odds are long. But, as the challengers' supporters might point out, the 35th LD often does not hew to convention.

For all of Crosscut's stories on the 35th District race, click here.

Tim Sheldon photo by John Stang; maps by Benjamin Anderstone.

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