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Portrait of a swing district: Pierce County's 28th fits the bill

Meet the Key Districts: However the Senate race turns out, the district is one with hot contests between Democrats and Republicans.
Meet the Key Districts: However the Senate race turns out, the district is one with hot contests between Democrats and Republicans.

Washington has a handful of perennial swing districts, and Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District certainly ranks among them.

Constituted entirely of Tacoma suburbs, the 28th has seen an impressive number of competitive races over the past few cycles. For the most part, even incumbents have faced plausible challenges in recent years. Even in years without nail biters, the 28th is willing to split a ticket. In 2008, Democrat Troy Kelley was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote, while 58 percent of the same voters returned Republican Mike Carrell to Olympia.

Because of the district’s swingy history, it was a surprise to many observers when the 28th LD’s marquee 2014 race turned out lopsided in the August primary. The race in question was over a year in the making. Last May, incumbent 28th LD State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, succumbed to complications of a blood disorder. The Pierce County Council appointed then-Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, to Carrell’s seat the next week. After the November election, sitting Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, announced her intentions to challenge O’Ban to keep his appointed seat in the midterms.

The race is a drawing lots of cash. O’Ban currently sits with $650,000 raised, apparently second only to fellow Republican Senator Andy Hill of the 45th; Green is fifth among mainstream Democratic Senate candidates statewide in fund raising, with $301,000. When the dust from the pricy brawl cleared on Primary night, O’Ban was leading Green 56 percent to 44 percent.

Nonetheless, the 28th continues to attract big attention, including for its other races. Democrat Christine Kilduff faces a close race against Republican Paul Wagemann in November. Wagemann received 27 percent in the primary, narrowly defeating political neophyte Monique Valenzuela Trudnowski (26 percent). Kilduff’s 32 percent combined with Democratic opponent John Connelly’s 12 percent adds up to only 44 percent for Democrats. However, left-leaning independent Kevin Heiderich’s 4 percent may tilt Kilduff. Many political observers also believe that frequent candidate Wagemann may struggle in the General. The game, in other words, is on.

Spotlight on the 28th

What is the 28th like, and why is it such a political battle ground?

The best word for the 28th is probably “suburban,” but this can be misleading. Lakewood, by all accounts a Tacoma suburb, is actually more diverse and working-class than its parent city. Despite having a local reputation for homogenous affluence, University Place isn’t much less racially diverse than Seattle, and its incomes are average in Washington state. Both cities, Lakewood especially, contain apartment complexes packed with blue-collar and service-industry workers.

Lakewood City Hall. Photo by Zachariah Bryan

Other parts of the 28th are more typically suburban. Fircrest and historic Steilacoom are both quiet and fairly well-to-do. Tacoma’s West End, which the district includes from the Narrows Bridge area south, boasts view homes packed with wealthy retirees. And near the Thurston County line, well-off DuPont is a bedroom community boomtown, more reminiscent of prototypical suburbia.

Save for a small park on the northwestern edge, Steilacoom Lake is surrounded by large houses boasting lakeside access. Photo by Zachariah Bryan

The 28th thus spans the socioeconomic gamut. It is dominated by the middle-class, from lower to upper. But there are also significant pockets of wealth and hardship. Lifestyles vary here, too. The 28th has a diverse economic base, with several distinct influences. The district (especially DuPont) has an Olympia influence, with many residents working in public administration. Health care is also a big influence, with Western State Hospital in Lakewood being the state’s largest psychiatric facility.

By far the 28th’s biggest employer and cultural influence is Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). JBLM employs over 60,000 people, with over 50,000 more among enlisted and their family. JBLM has more than 5,000 family units on-base. An estimated 30,000 JBLM retirees live within 40 miles of the base, many in the 28th. That means veterans are a powerful voting bloc — and probably help to tilt the district a little more Republican than it would be otherwise.

The battleground by the base

The 28th LD is sometimes presumed to be a conservative district, because of both the military presence and its reputation for wealth. Despite that, the 28th LD actually tilts blue. In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by double digits, 54 percent to 43 percent.  What makes the 28th LD lean Democratic? 

Besides the 28th’s overstated wealth, there’s another political myth that needs some busting here: The military also isn’t especially Republican. Enlisted men and women (especially in the Army) are young and racially diverse. Barack Obama actually carried Fort Lewis in 2008, and was not embarrassed in 2012, losing it just 49-to-48 percent. More to the point, voter turnout on military bases is miserable. The whole of JBLM cast only 1,900 votes in 2012: Turnout among registered voters on-base was among the lowest in the state, matched only by Indian reservations. Surely, the military presence is strongly-felt in the 28th — but JBLM itself only casts 3% of the 28th’s votes, and that’s in a good year.

Presidential voting in 2012 favored Barack Obama. Map by Benjamin Anderstone

To find the district’s Republicans, follow the money. They’re in affluent DuPont and the tonier neighborhoods of University Place (Park Ridge and Pemberton Creek) and Steilacoom (Saltars Point). Republicans also win the moneyed pockets of Lakewood, around Lake Steilacoom, Gravelly Lake, and — no surprise — the Tacoma Country & Golf Club on American Lake. There are also some GOP areas in the district’s southeast. This is a geographically disembodied part of the community of Elk Plain, included in the 28th by technicality of redistricting. It has more in common with the sprawling suburbs of East Pierce County than with the 28th — and like them, it tilts red.

Democrats have even stronger strongholds. They regularly rack up 2-to-1 margins in parts of Tacoma around Highland Parkway and Tacoma Community College. They also perform well in apartment-heavy areas of Lakewood, and even break 60 percent in some single-family home areas of University Place, Fircrest and West Tacoma.

Finally, it is worth noting that the 28th is not especially “libertarian-leaning,” as suburbs are often described. The area doesn’t like taxes, giving strong margins to many Tim Eyman measures. However, it’s also socially moderate. Same-sex marriage narrowly lost the 28th in 2012, although pot legalization won by 7 percent points. This is a working district, with an electorate to match.

What to watch in November

History suggests that the O’Ban vs. Green race may well be over. A turnaround from a 56-to-44 percent primary loss is unprecedented, except in cases of scandal, or a drastically different general electorate. The latter has really only ever been seen in Republican districts with Democratic-voting minorities who skip primaries. That does not apply in the 28th; meaning Democrats’ best bet is a last-minute shakeup.

Voting in the primary favored Republican Steve O'Ban. Map by Benjamin Anderstone

In the race between Democrat Kilduff and Republican Wagemann, the primary split 52-to-44 percent Republican, with left-leaning independent Heiderich receiving 4 percent. However, an analysis of precinct results suggests that Wagemann struggled in the primary in moderate precincts with lots of swing voters. If Kilduff can peel off Trudnowski voters and independents, she stands a good chance of holding the last Democratic seat in the 28th.

It seems like both parties see the same possibility. As of early October, the House Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees had thrown nearly $150,000 into the race.

The swinging tradition continues, no matter what happens in the Senate race.

  
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Portrait of a swing district: Pierce County's 28th fits the bill