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Coeds vs. Calvinists: The rumble on the North Sound

Meet the Key Districts: When you think of a district that includes part of Bellingham, you might assume it would be a safe haven for Democrats. Why it isn't so.
Meet the Key Districts: When you think of a district that includes part of Bellingham, you might assume it would be a safe haven for Democrats. Why it isn't so.

One of Washington’s biggest political grudge matches might be less personal than geopolitical. In the Nov. 4 election, the state’s bloodiest fight night could be way up north. The 42nd District, which extends from the Canadian border to Lake Whatcom, contains the most ideologically polarized voters in Washington. No love will be lost between these combatants.

Who are the big political bruisers in the 42nd?

In this corner, weighing in at 12,600 people and countless ornamental windmills, we have bucolic Lynden, Washington.

And in this corner, with a hard-hitting 40,000 (give or take): Bellingham, Washington, City of Subdued Excitement and Obama-loving undergrads.

It doesn’t seem like a fair fight. How could lightweight Lynden out-flank such a lefty political heavyweight? And, yet, despite a slight Democratic lean on the Presidential level, the 42nd district has become rather Republican in local races. This August, the three Democratic primary candidates for state Legislature managed only 39 percent to 43 percent.

It’s a pummeling, and one delivered by a small-town underdog. The answer of how this Bellingham-based district came to be posed to send three Republicans to Olympia involves coeds, Calvinists and countless Whatcom County residents caught in the fray.

The 42nd District: A bird's-eye view

Standing at the corner of Forest and Holly in Downtown Bellingham, just outside the Community Food Co-Op, you might ask yourself: How could a place like this be in a Republican district?

Trick question: It isn’t in the district. “Bellingham-based district” is a bit of a misnomer for the 42nd. It’s true that Bellingham is the district’s largest, most recognizable population center. Like with most college towns, Bellingham's students are a small portion of the electorate, but left-leaning townies abound. However, the majority of the city is in the staunchly Democratic 40th District with the San Juan Islands and Mount Vernon. Only 46 percent of Bellingham’s voters live in the 42nd, and only 27 percent of the 42nd LD lives in Bellingham. Stand in the wrong part of downtown, and you’re out-of-district. The legislative district split limits Bellingham’s influence on the 42nd.

Source: Washington State Redistricting Commission

Outside of the city, the Bellingham influence doesn’t extend far, either: Past Bellis Fair Mall and the suburban Marietta-Alderwood area, the district quickly turns rural. In a few spots, the population is full of Bellingham expats and crunchy retirees: Lummi Island, which bears cultural and political similarities to the San Juans; the Lummi Indian Reservation, which also has a significant Native population; and Point Roberts, which is geographically — and perhaps politically — continguous with Canada.

Otherwise, the northward drive on I-5 is classic rural Western Washington. Only about five miles north of Bellingham, the community of Ferndale is dominated by light manufacturing, construction and oil. Approaching the border, Birch Bay and Blaine are tranquil waterfront villages with middle-class retirees. Only a few minutes inland, small creeks crisscross large parcels and farms.

Like most of Western Washington, this is swing vote country: Romney nearly matched Obama (48 percent to Obama’s 50 percent). That’s enough to cut down Obama’s massive win in the district’s Bellingham portion (69-27 percent), but not enough to make the 42nd the battleground it is.

Enter the Calvinists

Head east from the I-5 corridor into the Nooksack Valley, and the 42nd gets much different. Here are the towns of Everson, Nooksack, Sumas and Whatcom County’s second-largest city, Lynden. Here, the economy is driven by healthy agriculture and retail industries. Salaries are decent, and crime and poverty rates are low. It’s the sort of place where families walk to church in throngs every Sunday morning.

There’s a conservatism to Lynden and the Nooksack Valley not evident in even Blaine or Ferndale, and it’s one with huge influence on the 42nd. The city's quietude belies a strong political punch. The precinct map of the 2012 presidential election, below, shows how.

Moving east from the I-5 corridor into the Valley, things turn Republican red, and fast. This is not merely the normal Republican red of rural Washington, but, approaching Lynden, a ruby-red matched only by the deepest blues of Seattle. Lynden voted for Mitt Romney by a lopsided 74-to-24 percent. The rural precinct just south of the city favored the Republican nominee by 5-to-1.

Why is the Nooksack Valley so Republican? One big influence is Calvinism. A full 23 percent of Lynden residents report Dutch ancestry, a reflection of the area’s legacy as a haven for Dutch Calvinist farmers. With a reported 30 churches, many of them Christian Reform, Lynden is heavy with theological conservatism. This translates politically. Lynden rejected same-sex marriage by just under 4-to-1. The rural precinct to the city’s north voted it down by a staggering 7-to-1 margin.

The 2014 outlook

Despite the Nooksack Valley’s impressive political neutralization of more-populous Bellingham, the 42nd did vote for Barack Obama in 2012. Why were local Dems trailing by landslide numbers in this year's primary?

Incumbency is a part of it. In 2012, while Obama was winning the district, incumbent Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Blaine, and Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, both won 54-to-46 percent. This year, only Buys is running again, but his 57-43 percent primary win isn’t far off his 56-44 performance in the 2012 primary. If previous years are any guide, the 42nd is likely to tighten in the general, as younger voters in Bellingham turn out in higher numbers.

State Senate: Incumbent State Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale, outpolled City Councilmember Seth Fleetwood, D-Bellingham, in the August 2014 Primary.

Even Buys, who won the primary in a small landslide, lost Bellingham 2-to-1. However, his strength in the Nooksack Valley (especially Lynden, his hometown) combined with over-performances in the rural areas to score him a solid win. Republican candidates for the Legislature do well with independents. Buys and other 42nd LD Republicans have typically out-performed party line in Ferndale and rural portion of the I-5 corridor.

One possible reason: Swing areas of the 42nd lean heavily anti-tax, and are far removed from an urban core. As in another key battleground, the 30th District around Federal Way, independents may favor candidates whom they see as limiting a state government popularly perceived as Seattle-centric. It’s a clever strategy, and one hard to combat with wedge issues. 

Case in point: Newly retired Rep. Overstreet was known as an unapologetic religious conservative. Many Democrats saw him as an odd match for a somewhat blue district. But Overstreet, and other conservatives, have some insulation that goes beyond fiscal issues. Thanks to rural Whatcom County, the 42nd actually voted narrowly against same-sex marriage, 52 percent to 48 percent. The deciding margin, unsurprisingly, came entirely out of Lynden. In any case, the 42nd may be more moderate than its representatives, but the Democrats are struggling to find issue-specific traction.

For now, Democrats in the 42nd will have to find issues where they can land lasting blows. Until then, they may continue to find their candidates in the position of an outclassed boxer: 14 points behind, and on the way to suffering a likely TKO in November.

  
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Coeds vs. Calvinists: The rumble on the North Sound