The Gristle

Inland Empire
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INLAND EMPIRE: In a low-stakes, low turnout primary broadly avoided by progressive voters, Democrats struggled in upper northwest Washington—a fascinating augury into election results in November.

According to the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office, voter turnout in August was just over 33 percent, healthier than the statewide average and neighboring counties. Fall-off in votes cast for Democrats in the 2014 primary versus support for those candidates in 2012 averaged around 9 points in the state’s ten congressional districts, less in the Puget Sound districts. Significant, but not nearly so great as to imperil the six seats held by Democrats in those districts when progressives arrive in larger numbers this fall.

Inland of the blue coast, the political landscape of the Cascade Foothills remains elusive to easy analysis.

The people of Washington were wise to put in place mechanisms to adjust representative districts based on population changes in a manner that files the hardest edges off redistricting. A bipartisan commission analyzes districts, and involves the Legislature only in the event of a deadlock of commission recommendations. While not perfect, the worst abuses of gerrymandering seen in other parts of the nation are avoided. As a result, the Foothills remain a vital terrain.

Incumbent Democrat Suzan DelBene pulled in nearly 51 percent of the vote against a jumble of conservative candidates vying to replace her in the 1st Congressional District, a vast area that includes most of rural Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, and a portion of King County. In a stunning collapse, the anointed challenger heavily backed by Republican money to uproot DelBene, Pedro Celis, failed to edge past originalist hardliner Robert Sutherland. As we’ve noted before, there’s just not much to distinguish one Republican from another these days—they’re all originalist hardliners—and no doubt this compounded the inability of Celis to make headway in this race.

The new 1st Congressional District was widely perceived to be a rural battleground in a fierce tug-of-war for control by the parties, yet—when the left wakes up in numbers to cast their votes in November—this race is all but decided. To her credit, DelBene understands her district and focused her energies on agriculture and similar subjects of broad appeal, successfully navigating them through an otherwise paralyzed House of Representatives, where her party remains in the minority.

Similarly, the 42nd Legislative District remains a battleground, despite years of erosion of progressive Bellingham votes south to the 40th District.

Republican Luanne VanWerven easily dominated a competitive field of conservative candidates, collecting a third of all votes cast for the position she seeks as a representative in the state Legislature. Stacking their results on to hers—as will undoubtedly happen in November—produces a steep climb for Democrat Satpal Sidhu, who collected just under 40 percent of the votes cast. In the second legislative seat, Democrat Joy Monjure faces a similar climb against incumbent Republican Vincent Buys.

That 15-ish point spread appears to reflect a durable division among likely voters in the 42nd District, perhaps the natural, unfired baseline of the district unagitated by issues or the energies of campaigns. This is the “new normal,” the size—if you will—of the culture divide in this freshly redrawn voting district. It is in the silence of the seven-in-ten registered voters who sat out the primary, insufficiently moved by appeals from either side of the divide, that the battle for November will be waged.

That spread appears again in the most heavily watched local race this season, Seth Fleetwood’s challenge to the incumbent Sen. Doug Ericksen, with the Bellingham Democrat trailing by about 4,000 ballots and the Ferndale Republican in a commanding 14-point lead.

Ericksen’s career arc has closely matched changes in 42nd District voter demographics and, yes, changes within the Republican Party itself.

A Huxley College graduate, Ericksen entered the Legislature in 2000 with the bated blessing of the League of Conservation Voters, who viewed him as a potential advocate of environmental issues on the right,*

When Ericksen ran for re-election in 2000, he was widely regarded as the superior candidate on issues of the environment, in an era when a more generous capacity of spirit was possible. And indeed, Ericksen in his first year generated a rating of 55 percent on WCV’s legislative scorecard for his votes on the environment—higher than many Democrats. It was not a record destined to last, as his WCV score plummeted to half that in his second year, half again in the year following, and nearly flatlined every year thereafter. He demonstrated himself early on as a back-bench bomb thrower, eager to shank the efforts of colleagues in the 42nd and neighboring districts. As his party grew more narrow and partisan, so too did Ericksen.

The collapse of Republican fortunes in the mid-term elections of the Bush Administration’s second term curiously left Ericksen as nearly the last senior GOPer standing in Olympia, completing his transformation into a caucus leader and mainstay for a party growing markedly more strident and less cooperative. Every vote counted among Republicans, and in his role as Deputy Republican Leader, Ericksen had to marshal and inspire all of them.

Ericksen’s shift to the senate in 2010 following the retirement of Dale Brandland—the consummate centrist and model for a swing district—threw his arc on steroids. The bombs one can lob from the senate are much more powerful, and the damage one can inflict as chair of powerful committees is extreme. His caucus, meanwhile, has underscored relentless obstruction as a central goal and organizing principle.

Ericksen has moved quite far to the right in his time in office. His district has edged there, too. But have they moved in synch? November will tell.

* This error of Ericksen’s early legislative history has been corrected.

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