Inside Politics, 2012: How Obama helps Washington D's, and Romney can help the R's

An expert begins looking at the shape of state politics in 2012. This is a year in which the big trends don't push our state in a Republican direction. But Romney sure beats the alternatives for Republican candidates like Rob McKenna.

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Despite the looming government shutdown, not much happened in Olympia over the weekend.

An expert begins looking at the shape of state politics in 2012. This is a year in which the big trends don't push our state in a Republican direction. But Romney sure beats the alternatives for Republican candidates like Rob McKenna.

Here we go again. The Republican presidential candidates have been campaigning for months, but soon the electoral activity will spread to all of our TVs, telephones and mailboxes as local candidates become active. As in 2010, I will periodically be offering facts and analysis on all the state and federal races in Washington State.  Here is how I see things as the 2012 election gets underway.

National partisan trends dramatically affect local races. Two years ago a Republican tide swept the country, and here in Washington State the GOP benefited, gaining one seat in Congress, and nine seats in the state legislature.  At this time two years ago you could clearly see the Republican momentum building.  The President’s approval rating was below 50 percent, and the Republicans had an unusual 2 percent advantage in generic ballot polling. (Democrats, given their strength in inner city areas, usually lead in nationwide or statewide generic ballot tests.  Republicans are generally happy to be even or slightly behind in the generic ballot)

This year the picture is different. President Obama’s approval rating has not improved, hovering right around 46 percent, but the Democrats now have a 2.5 percent advantage in the generic ballot. Americans may not be enthusiastic about the president’s performance, but they are even less enamored with his opposition. The approval ratings for Republicans in Congress, and the Republican Party generally, are even lower than are President Obama’s.  American’s are grumpy and nervous, and don’t like any politician much right now.

Mitt Romney’s wins in Florida and Nevada seem to have removed the remaining drama from the Republican nomination battle. Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum may soldier on, but Romney appears to be the inevitable nominee. This is good news for GOP candidates in Washington State. Polling shows a Romney vs. Obama contest to be close today. It is highly unlikely Mitt Romney will carry Washington State, but unlike his GOP competitors, he can probably keep the margin close enough to not damage the rest of the Republican ticket.

The years 2006 and 2008 were big ones for the Democrats.  The Republicans experienced a big year in 2010. At this point, 2012 seems more like a year without a huge advantage for either party. Democratic incumbents who survived the 2010 GOP tidal wave are likely to survive this year. And the race for governor is likely to be very close.

Governor:  Lean Republican

The race to replace Chris Gregoire is the main event in Washington this year. Nothing matters more to the parties. Both sides will pull out all the stops. Again.

It is not surprising that Attorney General Rob McKenna is the only serious Republican candidate. What is surprising is the fact that Congressman Jay Inslee seems to have a clear field on the Democratic side.

The Republican bench is notoriously thin in this state, but there are lots of talented, experienced Democrats in Washington who would love to be governor. For whatever reason, however, all of them have stood aside and allowed Inslee a free ride to the November election.

McKenna and Inslee are both tough, seasoned politicians. Both will raise all the money they need. Both will run technically strong campaigns.  What will decide the contest? McKenna has the advantage on issues.  Inslee has the advantage of demography.

Voters are unhappy with the performance of state government. Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion for 28 years, and currently control both houses of the legislature. The “change” message is ready made for the McKenna campaign. In addition, unlike many Republicans, Rob McKenna’s has made enthusiastic support for public education the heart of his message; exactly what swing suburban voters want to hear. When it comes to debating Olympia issues, McKenna will be on the offensive.

The Democrats and the Inslee campaign, therefore, will try and make this campaign about national issues and tie McKenna to the national image of Republicans. The bottom line for Jay Inslee is the simple fact that there are significantly more Democrats in Washington than there are Republicans. If he can keep the focus on highly partisan wedge issues, and convince voters that McKenna is no different than Republicans they have rejected in the past, he wins.

Right now, McKenna has the advantage.  Polling has consistently shown him ahead by a few percentage points. The most recent poll, done by SurveyUSA, showed McKenna ahead, 46 percent to 43 percent. What accounts for the McKenna lead in this blue state? 

Looking at the SurveyUSA poll, McKenna leads among independents, but there is nothing unusual about that. Dino Rossi won among independent voters in 2008 and 2010. McKenna however, is getting 9 percent of the vote among Democrats, whereas Rossi only received 4 percent of the Democratic vote in his 2010 Senate race. In addition, today Democrats have a 4 percent advantage over Republicans in party identification.  According to the 2010 exit polling, Democrats had a 12 percent advantage on election day. Today, the partisan atmospherics are favorable enough for the GOP to give McKenna a chance to win. Will that be true in November?

For Rob McKenna to become the first Republican governor elected since 1980 he needs two things to happen. First, he must win a significant share of the “soft” Democrats, in addition to winning among independents. So far he is on track to do that. Second, he needs to hope that national trends don’t shift and cause a big Democratic tide in Washington State.

Attorney General:  Toss up

There are three open seat races for statewide offices other than governor, but the one that will attract the most attention is the race for attorney general.  Why? Because the AG makes decisions that affect major interest groups, including business, labor, environmentalists, and trial lawyers.  Big money, therefore, will be spent to influence the race to replace Rob McKenna.

This is another race where both parties have settled on their candidates early. Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn will face off with Democratic King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson. Both are considered rising stars in their parties.

The same SurveyUSA poll that showed McKenna slightly ahead showed this race dead even, as have other polls in this race. Voters don’t know these two candidates yet, but enough money will be spent this year to change that. The race begins dead even.

Other state office races

Secretary of State:  On the Democratic side, former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, former State Sen. Kathleen Drew, State Rep. Zack Hudgins, and State Sen. Jim Kastama have all entered the race to replace retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed.  The Republican will be Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman. Wyman succeed Reed as Thurston's auditor, and now seeks to succeed him as Secretary of State. 

State Auditor: State Rep. Mark Miloscia and State Sen. Craig Pridemore are both running as Democrats to replacing Democrat Brian Sonntag, who chose not to run again. No Republican has announced yet.

Lt. Governor:  Democratic incumbent Brad Owen has drawn two significant Republican challengers, former State Sen. Bill Finkbeiner and State Rep. Glenn Anderson.

Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, Insurance Commissioner  Mike Kreidler, Superintendent of Public  Instruction Randy Dorn, and State Treasurer Jim McIntire have not drawn opponents yet.

Running statewide takes money, and raising significant amounts of money for any of these races is very difficult. This is another area where national trends weigh heavily in the outcome.

U.S. Senate:  Likely Democrat

Freshman state Sen. Michael Baumgartner from Spokane is the only serious announced opponent for Sen. Maria Cantwell.  Baumgartner is viewed as a rising star, but not viewed as someone who is likely to defeat an incumbent Senator in a state that leans Democratic.

Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant is considering getting into this race.  Neither Baumgartner nor Bryant have the statewide name familiarity, or the fundraising ability that Dino Rossi had when he challenged Sen. Patty Murray in 2010.

Even with those attributes, Rossi came up short in a year when Republicans were ousting Democratic incumbents all across the country. Unless the partisan trend swings heavily towards the GOP, Cantwell is likely to cruise to re-election.

U.S. House of Representatives

Before redistricting, Democrat Rick Larsen and Republicans Dave Reichert and Jaimie Herrera Beutler all occupied seats in competitive congressional districts. Now all are safe. Redistricting tends to do that.

Washington State’s eight incumbent members of Congress running for re-election now all have safe seats and will not face a serious challenge. 

But there are two open seats. The new 10th district is likely to go to the Democrats, but the re-drawn 1st district is too close to call.

1st Congressional District: Toss up

Jay Inslee’s old district, has been completely re-drawn and now stretches from the Sammamish plateau all the way to the Canadian border. It is a weird mix of moderate, affluent, Microsoft suburbanites, and rural conservatives from eastern Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties. It appears to be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

It looks like the Republican nominee will be former legislator and current Snohomish County Councilman John Koster. Koster is making his third run for Congress, having lost narrowly twice to Rep. Rick Larsen in the 2nd district.  Koster seems to be a perfect fit for the rural parts of the district, but can he appeal to moderate King County software engineers?

On the Democratic side there is a cattle call of ambitious politicians lining up to run. The most prominent are former state legislator Laura Ruderman, State Senator Steve Hobbs, State Rep. Roger Goodman, and former 8th Congressional District candidates Darcy Burner and Suzan DelBene.  One of them is going to win the nomination with a very small percentage of the overall vote.  Assume a 50 percent turnout in the August primary.  Assume 50 percent of those voters pick Koster.  Now divide the rest among at least five Democratic candidates.  When a winning total gets that small, money becomes less important than coalition building and positioning.  Which of these Democrats can put together the numbers to win?

10th Congressional District:  Likely Democratic

Democrats seemed determined to draw a district tailor made for former legislator Denny Heck, and they succeeded.  Heck lost to Herrera Beutler in the 3rd district in 2010, but it appears this setback just delayed his congressional career by two years.  The 10th includes Thurston County and western suburban Pierce County. The district leans Democratic to the point where it would take a very strong Republican candidate to win it.  The two announced Republican candidates, Pierce County Councilmen Dick Muri and Stan Flemming , have not demonstrated that kind of political muscle.

Heck is a fundraising machine and a very experienced and skilled politician. At the end of 2011 he reported $580,000 cash on hand.  Muri, the GOP nominee in the 9th Congressional District in 2010 had $69,000 in the bank, Flemming had raised less than $5,000.  Unless something dramatic changes, Denny Heck is going to Congress.

Early next week: A look at how the state Legislature's races are shaping up in 2010.


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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.