Psychoanalyzing Washington: What we now know about ourselves

We know a good deal more about politics and the public's will in Washington state and the West today than earlier this month. Six takeaways from the election.
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The Palouse Hills northeast of Walla Walla in Whitman County: Voting patterns in the county show some real variability.

We know a good deal more about politics and the public's will in Washington state and the West today than earlier this month. Six takeaways from the election.

1. We want Democrats (to act like Republicans):

If Washington state voters sent a clear message in 2012, it was that we want Democrats to run the state, while applying GOP fiscal principles. President Barack Obama won the state handily, the most electable GOP gubernatorial candidate in a generation was defeated, Democrats hold all but one statewide executive office and they are the dominating force in the state House and, at least mathematically, the state Senate. Questions about how much control they have in the Senate go to the larger point: the balance of power is in the hands of Democrats who often vote like Republicans. Washington should be blue on paper, but....

The clearest statement about where Washingtonians stand was the vote on Tim Eyman's perennially popular idea to make tax increases subject to a two-thirds-vote rule. I-1185 passed in every single county in Washington, all 39 of them. There was no Cascade or Red/Blue divide. Urban counties passed it, so did rural ones. The only question was, how much did it pass by? The worst it did was in liberal San Juan County where it eked a slim majority of 50.24 percent. It carried Democratic King County with 54 percent. Majorities were bigger in Eastern Washington where the worst it did was in Whitman County, which passed Eyman's initiative with a healthy 61.8 percent.

So, Washington said, Gay marriage, let's do it. Legal pot, fantastic. People with progressive values in charge, you got it. But don't let them raise taxes without jumping the high bar. It's the politics of broad minds and fiscal constraint.

2. What are they smoking in the Palouse?

It's always interesting to see how the state looks a bit scrambled on ballot measures.  For example, I-1185 found Washington to be all red on tax increases. Charter Schools (I-1240) did well in much of Pugetopolis (though not King County), Central Washington (Chelan, Yakima, Benton, Kittitas counties) and Southwest Washington (Lewis, Clark, Pacific counties), but it lost in many traditionally Republican Eastern Washington counties. Enthusiasm and skepticism for charters does not follow strict partisan lines. Neither did pot legalization (I-502), which won in some usually Republican leaning counties like Clallam on the Olympic Peninsula, and notably in some of Eastern Washington's northern tier counties (Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry), plus in Spokane and Whitman. Whitman is becoming one of the more interesting Eastern Washington counties to watch, showing flashes of both liberalism and conservatism. This cycle, Whitman County was pro-pot, anti-charters, pro-gay marriage, and voted for Mitt Romney. What are they smoking in the Palouse?

3. Libertarians matter, at least a little:

Nationally, it was a good show for the Libertarian Party. The standard bearer, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, was a credible, experienced presidential candidate who drew more than 1.2 million votes nationally, and that's without being on the ballot in every state (the party now has full ballot access in 30 states and the District of Columbia). According to the party, there were in fact seven Libertarian candidates who received over 1 million votes. Five of those were in Texas and one in Georgia. More importantly, the party posed a serious problem for Republicans in a number of races. In at least nine contests nationally, the Daily Kos estimates, Libertarians appear to have helped Democrats defeat Republicans by receiving a percentage of the vote that exceeded the winning Democrat's margin of victory. The working assumption is that most of those votes would have gone Republican without a Libertarian on the ballot. (The Washington state Libertarian Party's endorsements offer ideological evidence, as they heavily favored Republicans.)

The nine races tipped by Libertarians were consequential ones, including a Senate and governor's race in Montana, two House seats in Arizona, and one in Utah. According to The Washington Post's "The Fix," in Senate contests in Indiana and Montana, the Libertarian Party candidate drew around 6 percent, which they said are "the party’s best showings in three-way Senate races in at least the last decade." The Fix's conclusion: "The question ... is whether the Libertarian Party continues to be an occasional nuisance, or whether it continues to build on its nascent progress and becomes a real headache for the Republican Party. Given the GOP’s ongoing problems with its brand, it’s not hard to see voters continuing to desert that brand and pick an increasingly valid third-party." In other words, GOP woes offer a potential opening for Libertarians, especially if they find candidates who can mainstream their ideology.

4. Lack of party loyalty in the West:

Speaking of third parties, they continue to do best, on the whole, in the West. Based on returns thus far, third-party presidential candidates drew 1.69 percent of the national vote. But in 11 states, third party candidates drew double that national average or better:
New Mexico 4.17
Wyoming 3.54
Oregon 3.52
Maine 3.17
North Dakota 2.99
Montana 2.93
Idaho 2.85
California 2.61
Arkansas 2.55
Washington 2.54

Note that five of those 11 states are in the Great Nearby — the Pacific Northwest region already well-known for its high percentage of "nones," that is people who belong to no organized religion or church. Same seems to be true in politics. Voters in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana are much more likely than the national average to throw their support to alternative candidates. In Washington, this included Libertarian Gary Johnson, the Green Party's Jill Stein, and the conservative Constitution Party's Virgil Goode.

Another tidbit: Even in Washington's most conservative counties, like Columbia, Garfield, and Lincoln, a socialist presidential candidate received at least one vote, and in some cases more. At the micro-level, even the state's reliably red counties are, well, a little bit red — in the old, Cold War War meaning of that term.

5. Maintaining a tradition, breaking a barrier:

In Washington, much has been made about the fact that Jay Inslee's victory over McKenna means that the state GOP will have to defer its dreams of returning to the Governor's Mansion for another four years. The last Republican governor in Washington was John Spellman, elected in 1980. But they can console themselves with keeping an even longer lock on another statewide office: Secretary of State, which has been held by a Republican since Ludlow Kramer was elected in 1964 (the chain is Kramer, Bruce Chapman, Ralph Munro, Sam Reed). But there was also progress: Kim Wyman will be the first woman to hold the office. She also becomes the first Secretary of State since the '64 election who did not serve in some capacity during the Dan Evans administration!

Why has the Secretary of State's office become a Republican stronghold? One reason is because for some time, its occupants have put the job above partisanship. Lud Kramer gained fame for being one of the first state Republican elected officials to openly criticize President Richard Nixon during Watergate; Munro was well-known for behind-the-scenes bipartisanship, and Reed gained respect, from Democrats anyway, for his handling of the disputed Rossi-Gregoire contest of 2004. Another might be that the office is one where traditional, though not exclusively Republican, principles prevail. In addition to overseeing elections, the SOS is in charge of stewarding Washington's memory by managing the vital state archives and, because of Reed's desire to save an important institution from the axe, the state library. The job is conserving, and instinctual, traditional conservatives ought to be pretty good at that.

6. So much for newspaper endorsements:
Newspaper endorsements seemed to have little impact in the governor's race, where the state's major newspapers were nearly unanimous (save for The Olympian) in endorsing McKenna over Inslee. While McKenna won the endorsement war, he lost the race. And that was even with the extra-special Seattle Times ad campaign on his behalf that was designed to prove how effective the Times is as a political ad medium. Oops. McKenna, of course, did not even win the Times' home county, King, hardly unexpected.

Many of the McKenna-endorsing newspapers were in counties that traditionally vote Republican, so they likely reflected the majority opinion of their readers. But how did gubernatorial newspaper endorsements do in counties that might have swung? Well, the Everett Herald also endorsed McKenna but Inslee won Snohomish County anyway. The Aberdeen Daily World backed McKenna, but Gray's Harbor county went with Inslee. The Kitsap Sun in Inslee's home county endorsed McKenna, and Inslee was just barely edged there — the endorsement might have made a difference. The Tacoma News-Tribune endorsed McKenna who won narrowly in Pierce County, so their editorial might have made a difference as well.

Still, the overall weight in sheer pounds tipped the media scales heavily against Inslee making him seem the underdog even in a state that routinely elects Democrats, and even while he was leading in the polls. The main takeaway is that if editorial boards decided elections, the outcomes would be very different than reality. As a former member of a newspaper editorial board, I can say with some small authority that reality is often a salmon that must swim hard upstream during edit board deliberations.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.