Democrats just can't get comfortable in the 30th District

All the pieces are there for the Democrats to control politics in Federal Way and nearby areas. Instead, they are likely to lose a state Senate seat they badly need to keep.
All the pieces are there for the Democrats to control politics in Federal Way and nearby areas. Instead, they are likely to lose a state Senate seat they badly need to keep.

For the Democrats, the 30th Legislative District is just one of those districts. Both parties have a few: districts that should by right be relatively safe, but obstinately insist on split-ticket voting.

The 30th must be especially frustrating, however. Obama won the district, which stretches from Federal Way and Des Moines to Milton and Algona, by 20 percentage points in 2012 (59 to 39 percent). And its growing population of younger, ethnically-diverse voters — many of them renters — has pushed the 30th leftward over the long term.

In this August's primary, socially conservative Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Mark Miloscia trounced his Democratic opponent for State Senate, Shari Song, 57 to 43 percent. Republican incumbent Rep. Linda Kochmar defeated local firefighter and political newcomer Greg Baruso by a bit more, 59 to 41 percent. In one of the state’s closest primary results, sitting Democratic Rep. Roger Freeman leads former Federal Mayor Jack Dovey, a Republican, by a hair, only 51 to 49 percent.

This is not just a bad Democratic underperformance, but a uniquely bad one. Only one elected Republican, Sen. Steve Litzow of the Bellevue-based 41st, represents a district as Democratic as the 30th. Come November, there is a realistic chance that the 30th may have a completely Republican delegation. 

This leaves Democrats asking: “Is it the 30th District — or is it us?”

Primary colors

If you’ve ever seen a campaign stumble out of the primary, especially a Democratic campaign, you’ve probably heard the excuse: Primary electorates tend to be older, white homeowners, and therefore more Republican. So, the primary may be a big opinion poll, but it’s not a statistically representative one.

“Exhibit A” for this argument could be Song’s underperformance versus top-ticket Democrats like Barack Obama. Below, Obama (in 2012) is on the left (darker blue being stronger Democratic), and Song on the right.

Crosscut archive image.
Crosscut archive image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s true that the low-turnout primary likely hurt Song, but only to a degree. In 2012, 42 of 50 D-vs.-R state legislative races saw an improvement for the Democratic candidate between August and November. However, on average, the Democratic candidate improved only 1.3 percent. That’s far from enough to push Song over the top. This argument also neglects a simpler fact: Republicans — current Rep. Kochmar, former Reps. Katrina Asay and Skip Priest — have indeed won general elections in the 30th.

There’s some reason to believe Democrats stand a good chance of improving in the 30th in November. Districts with lots of young, minority voters tend to see the biggest improvements between August and November. In 2012, the Yakima Valley-based 15th District saw Democratic performance increase from 30.0 percent to 38.9 percent. This sort of increase would give Song a narrow win.

The 15th, though, is an extreme example. Hispanic voters there turned out for the 2012 presidential election in fairly strong numbers, but the primary turnout had been very weak. The turnout gap along racial lines is not nearly as high in the 30th.  The racial partisanship gap is smaller, too. Whites in the 15th vote almost 3-to-1 Republican, and non-whites vote almost 4-to-1 Democratic. In the 30th, non-whites in the 30th are less Democratic, and whites in the 30th are much less Republican.

The general election will give 30th LD Democrats a boost, but that boost will likely be an inch when they need a foot.

Miloscia and pocketbook voters

From the above, it’s clear that turnout isn’t the Democrats’ only trouble in the 30th.  Miloscia’s near-landslide performance against Song, a credible opponent in an open-seat race, suggests some unique appeal that’s stripping away traditional Democratic voters.

That appeal, I propose, is that Miloscia’s political identity fits unusually well with that of his districts. These are working-class Democrats.  Miloscia’s social conservatism (while a Democratic leglslator, he opposed same-sex marriage and abortion) appeals in a district that narrowly voted against same-sex marriage. However, Miloscia also appeals to his district’s underappreciated fiscal conservative leanings. 

Oftentimes, districts like the 30th are labeled “socially conservative, but fiscally liberal,” the inverse of the affluent-but-secular districts of Bellevue or Mercer Island. This is a gross over-simplification. Working-class voters are fiscally liberal in the sense that they vote Democratic, support many social services and are protective of programs like Social Security. But these voters do not like taxes. They tend to own starter homes that they don’t want to pay more property tax on. They drive long distances to work or events and don’t really want to pay more gas tax. They voted strongly against the income tax for fear of state government overreach, and for the same reason, they didn’t cotton to the candy tax a few years ago.

Miloscia presents himself as leaning left on labor and the safety net. It’s a characterization that Democrats may dispute, but it’s undeniably one that takes away the Dems’ most potent issues in the 30th. The 30th's Democratic-leaning voters may be wary of voting for a Republican for Congress or the presidency, but on the legislative level, standing up to Seattle “big spenders” can seem appealing to these pocketbook Democrats.

Put simply, on the national level, voters in the 30th LD see Democrats as the party of the people. On the state level, they’re considerably more ambivalent.

The long run

The 30th continues its leftward drift. Between 2004 and 2008, top-ticket Democrats saw unusually large gains here. Shifts in ethnic demographics helped make this part of the state one of the few where Obama’s performance was essentially stable between 2008 and 2012. With growing Asian and Hispanic populations, the GOP will be facing stiffer headwinds in future years. No one can know what coming years will bring, but future Republican prospects here are relatively weak.

On the other hand, the 30th also has its share of working-class whites. Analysts debate whether this population is trending Republican long-term. Whether this is true or not nationally, the 30th is a prime example of how canny Republicans can adapt their messaging to appeal to pocketbook Democrats. In a state where the Democratic Party base runs unusually liberal and urban, districts like the 30th offer the Republicans surprising opportunities — and the Democrats, chronic headaches.

  

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