Inside Politics 2012: It's the gas prices, stupid!

External factors like gas prices and unemployment matter more than campaign strategems. At this point, it looks like Obama, McKenna, Cantwell, and Derek Kilmer have the advantage in key races.

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Campaign bumper stickers and homemade buttons. (Tom Albers)

External factors like gas prices and unemployment matter more than campaign strategems. At this point, it looks like Obama, McKenna, Cantwell, and Derek Kilmer have the advantage in key races.

In mid-September, 2008, after months of campaigning, Republican candidates John McCain and Dino Rossi were ahead in their races for President and Governor. Then the financial crisis hit and the stock market collapsed. Within days, Democrats Barack Obama and Chris Gregoire surged ahead and went on to comfortable victories, reminding us yet again that events, not clever TV commercials, usually decide elections.

This past month has seen many dramatic events in the world of politics. Republicans led a budget revolt in the state senate and the legislature crashed into special session. Jay Inslee resigned from Congress, and Congressman Norm Dicks announced he will not run again. Super Tuesday came and went and the Republican presidential contest remains unsettled. And gas prices soared to over $4 per gallon. Will any of these events alter the trajectory of Washington state politics?

The Big Picture. The economy is an abstract concept to most voters until it affects them at home, and two economic numbers can really get voters’ attention: the stock market and the price of gas. In recent weeks, both have been going up, causing opposite political effects. The Dow is well over 13,000 again. This, combined with an improving employment picture, should be very good news for President Obama and Democrats. Exploding gas prices, however, have negated the good news and held down the President’s approval rating. The President’s approval rating, and his slim lead over Mitt Romney, remain virtually unchanged since mid-February. Republicans and Democrats are now virtually tied in the generic ballot polling. What if gas gets to $5 per gallon or higher this summer?

While gas prices seem to be preventing President Obama from generating any momentum, the Republicans are stuck in a nomination morass of their own making. As I wrote earlier, the Republican National Committee and the State Parties have designed a process in which there are very few winner-take-all primaries. Even when one candidate “wins” a state, the losers garner nearly as many delegates as the winner. The result is a process which will go on deep into April (at least) and still has the potential of producing a convention where no candidate has a first ballot majority.

Mitt Romney is still the heavy favorite to win the nomination. If he wins all the winner-take-all primary states in April, and continues to pick up roughly 55 percent of the delegates in states that decide their contests proportionally, he should enter the convention with the nomination in hand — but his margin for error is very slim.

These two potential mega events — gas hitting record levels, and chaos at the top of the Republican ticket — could have huge impacts on Washington state elections. A GOP convention that spins out of control, or the nomination of a Republican candidate far to the right of the comfort zone of moderate Washington voters, could seriously impact Rob McKenna's campaign for governor and local Republicans. On the other hand, skyrocketing gas prices could do to Barack Obama and Jay Inslee's gubernatorial campaign what a crashing stock market did to John McCain and Dino Rossi.

Governor’s Race: Lean Republican. Republican McKenna is slightly ahead in his race for governor. Don’t take my word for it; liberal blogger Darryl Holman summarized the most recent polls this way recently: "The three most recent polls in this race are nearly contiguous, covering a period from the 13th to the 23rd of February with only a 2 day gap between the two most recent polls. Therefore, I’ve pooled them to give a snapshot of the race for the second half of February. This yields a sample of 2,336 “votes” of which 1,945 go to either McKenna or Inslee. McKenna leads Inslee 42.9% to 40.4%."

In an effort to shake up the race, or increase his time on the campaign trail or something, Inslee abruptly resigned from Congress. The result? Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat called Inslee a quitter. columnist Joel Connelly compared Inslee to Sarah Palin. The Times editorial board lamented the confusion Inslee’s resignation may create for the state in running multiple elections to fill his 1st district vacancy

Ouch. Republicans are usually on the receiving end of this sort of treatment from the Seattle media. Inslee may have gained valuable on-the-ground campaign time by resigning from the House, but he has handed the McKenna campaign another powerful issue as they build their case for change. Democrats control Olympia and have controlled the Governor’s office for 28 years. Olympia is not popular right now and neither is Congress. And now former Congressman Inslee is going to have to explain over and over again why he resigned.

Once both sides and their allies begin spending their millions on TV commercials this race will change. Washington is still more blue than red. But at this point you have to say, advantage McKenna.

U.S. Senate: Likely Democratic. Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant prudently opted not to run for the Senate this year, leaving state Sen. Michael Baumgartner as the only credible opponent for Sen. Maria Cantwell. Baumgartner remains stuck in Olympia, unable to raise money during the special session of the legislature. Cantwell’s seat looks safer by the day.

U.S. House races. By far the most interesting race in Washington state will be for the open seat in the new 1st district. The 1st is now the only district in our state which is evenly balanced and highly competitive for both parties. The April financial reports will be fascinating in this crowded contest.

In the meantime, Norm Dicks’ announced retirement has created a scramble in the 6th district, which includes part of Tacoma and the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas. Can Republicans mount a credible challenge for this open seat? Probably not. In the 2010 U.S. Senate race in the “new” 6th CD, Democrat Sen. Patty Murray would have beaten Republican Dino Rossi 53-47 percent, the same result as what actually occurred in the “old” 6th CD. The 6th is a “likely” if not “safe” Democratic district. Much like in the new 10th district, based around Olympia, it would take a very strong Republican, running in a very good Republican year, to win the 6th and neither announced Republican, Doug Cloud or Jesse Young, both of whom ran last time, have demonstrated the requisite political muscle to pull off a win here.

At this point it appears that Democratic state Sen. Derek Kilmer (26th District, Gig Harbor) is the overwhelming favorite to succeed Dicks. Kilmer announced immediately, and a number of other Democrats who were considering the race have all stepped aside. For Kilmer, one obstacle may remain. State Sen. Tim Sheldon (35th District, Shelton area) is still considering the race. Sheldon is a Democrat who votes with the Republicans more often than not, and he defies his party on a regular basis. Will he run now against Dicks’ heir-apparent?

State Legislature. Three maverick Democrats teamed with the Senate Republicans to take over the floor of the state Senate and pass a state budget. Democrats attacked the Republican budget for cutting education. The legislature failed to pass a budget on time and was forced into special session. Senate Republicans late last week tried to regain the high ground by proposing a budget with no cuts to either K-12 or higher education.

It's not likely that any of this drama actually affect who does and does not get elected this November. Legislative races are affected far more by national mega trends, and very local factors, than they are by what actually happens under the dome in Olympia. Two recent developments which have nothing to do with legislation, however, may help affect the balance of power in both houses.

First, Rep. Deb Eddy, Democrat from the 48th district (Bellevue, Kirkland), announced she would not seek a fourth term in the House. The 48th leans slightly Democratic, but this is one more competitive open seat the Democrats must now defend.

More importantly, the Republicans have recruited a top-tier candidate for the Senate in the 19th LD. Rick Winsman just retired as the CEO of the Kelso-Longview Chamber of Commerce and has announced he will run against Democratic incumbent Brian Hatfield. This gives the Rs the third viable pick up opportunity they need in order to have a chance at a 25-24 majority; their other likely targets being the
open seat in the 25th district, and against Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen in the 10th district.

We will get a much clearer sense of legislative politics when candidates file for office in less than two months.


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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.