Why the GOP tide fell short in Washington state

Among many reasons, two stand out: the more liberal composition of the state's electorate and the Democrats' firewall in Seattle.

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Dino Rossi

Among many reasons, two stand out: the more liberal composition of the state's electorate and the Democrats' firewall in Seattle.

The counting is now nearly done.  Time for one last look at the election of 2010.  As I wrote earlier, the Republican wave which gave the GOP control of the U.S. House and a net gain of nearly 700 state legislative seats sloshed into Washington state and took out some vulnerable Democrats, but wasn’t powerful enough to oust Patty Murray and other Democratic veterans.  Turnout and the lack of an “enthusiasm gap” played a part, as did the simple fact that Washington state is less conservative than the nation as a whole.  So what does this election portend for the future of two-party balance in Washington state? 

Unless recounts overturn the extremely close races for a state House seat in the 25th district and a state Senate seat in the 41st district, Republicans will end up netting gains of one seat in Congress, four seats in the state Senate, and five seats in the state House. 

In the state Senate, Democrats were unable to mount serious challenges to Sen. Pam Roach, or to Rep. Doug Ericksen, who easily held on to a GOP open seat in Whatcom County.  Republicans targeted appointee Randy Gordon in the 41st district (Mercer Island), and four Democratic freshmen.  They defeated Gordon and three of the four freshmen, while Sen. Steve Hobbs in the 44th district narrowly survived his first re-election.  The GOP also went after three veteran Democratic incumbents, but went 0 for 3 in those races. 

In the House, Republicans retained three competitive open seats, and easily re-elected freshmen Jan Angel and Mike Hope in competitive districts.  There were four Democratic seats open in competitive districts; the GOP picked up one of them.  Only two Democrats in competitive districts faced their first re-election this year; the Republicans won one of those races.  And 13 Democratic veterans faced competitive races, with the GOP winning wining only three of those contests. 

In the U.S. Senate race, Sen. Murray defeated Dino Rossi by 4.7 percent.  Rossi’s loss came in urban Puget Sound.  Compared to his dead-heat governor’s race in 2004, Rossi did slightly worse in Pierce and Snohomish counties, and cratered in King County where he received only 35 percent of the vote.  In 2004 he lost King by 18 points, in 2008 he lost it by 28, and in 2010 he lost King County by 30. 

So why did Patty Murray and so many other Democrats survive while their colleagues were falling around the country?  The first answer is turnout.  Statewide and in King County, 71 percent of voters returned their ballots.  In contrast, in 2006, our last mid-term election, turnout statewide and in King County, was 65 percent.  It seems pretty clear that at least in Washington state, Democrats turned out to vote, nullifying whatever “enthusiasm gap” existed nationwide.  Was this the result of the Democrats’ ground game, the switch to all-mail voting, or fear that Sen. Murray was in real danger of losing based on late polling?  My guess is it was a mixture of all three. 

Exit poll data, however, makes it clear that something more fundamental caused the Republican gains here to be modest rather than massive:  Washington is simply slightly more liberal than the nation as a whole.  Big surprise, right?   

Nationally, 35 percent of those who voted considered themselves Republicans, 35 percent Democrats, and 29 percent independents.  In Washington the numbers were 23-35-42 for Republicans, Democrats, and independents, respectively. Nationally, 20 percent of voters described themselves as liberal; 38 percent moderate; 42 percent conservative.  In Washington it was 30-35-36.

Nationally, 41 percent of voters viewed the GOP favorably, 53 percent unfavorably.  In Washington it was 35-58. Nationally, 44 percent of voters viewed the Democratic Party favorably; 52 percent unfavorably.  In Washington the results were 50-46. Finally, nationally, 44 percent of those who voted approve of the job President Obama is doing; 55 percent disapprove.  In Washington state it was 51-49. 

The wave wasn’t as big here because there just aren’t as many conservatives here as there are in other parts of the country.  Dino Rossi’s numbers among Republicans, Democrats, independents, conservatives, liberals, and moderates closely matched the national trends.   Rossi won virtually all the conservatives, lost all the liberals, and trailed by 15 percent among moderates.  Nationally, Republicans lost the moderate vote by 13 percent, yet still won.  The difference for Rossi was in the composition of the Washington state electorate.  

Republicans and commentators focus on King County, where Rossi lost big, but the real firewall for Democrats is the city of Seattle.  If you subtract out Jim McDermott's Seventh CD, which is essentially the city of Seattle, Republicans won 52 percent of the vote for the U.S. House statewide, which is roughly the same percentage Republicans received in House elections nationwide.  Add Seattle back into the mix and Republicans lose 52-48, which roughly mirrors the results in the Rossi-Murray race.  Amazing how that works. 

So what are Republicans to do?  First, continue to recruit and fund quality candidates for state legislative seats — and be patient.  Roughly half of Washington’s 49 legislative districts are competitive, in that they can be won by either party.  In the past two elections the GOP has won a net gain of 11 seats in those districts.  They are approaching rough parity again in Olympia. 

At the level of major, highly partisan statewide elections, however, the GOP has to overcome the Seattle problem.  Republicans can win majorities in the legislature without electing a single member from Seattle.  But to win statewide they have to attract enough rural and suburban votes to counter the Democratic landslide coming out of Seattle. 

There are two things that could happen that would lead to a Republican candidate winning a race for governor or U.S. senator.  The first is for national perceptions to shift, creating more conservatives in Washington state, or, more likely, attracting more moderates to the national Republican message. 

Assuming that doesn’t happen, the math makes it clear that in order to win, a GOP candidate must attract the votes of more moderates than Republicans here and elsewhere are currently receiving.  To do that, a winning GOP candidate must in some way differentiate him or herself from the national Republican brand, without losing the votes of the conservative base.   

This year has been marked by battles within the Republican family between Tea Party “conservatives” and establishment “moderates,” and that will certainly intensify as we head into 2012.  Adding a few more moderate votes without losing conservatives is the GOP's path to victory. That will be the challenge for the GOP candidates for governor and challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2012. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.