Bungle in the Jungle?
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE?: The particular political makeup of the 40th Legislative District practically guarantees no conservative can ever be elected to represent the district in Olympia. For decades, the district has been considered “safe” for Democrats. But the exuberant enthusiasm of Democrats filing to fill the position vacated by Rep. Kris Lytton may have made the impossible possible, and a district that could never be lost under ordinary circumstances to Democrats in November may be lost under extraordinary circumstances to Democrats in August.
The 40th District is very blue, and includes western Washington’s affluent and progressive coastal communities of the San Juan Islands. It is also the receiving area for progressive voters from south Bellingham, the most dependably liberal section of Whatcom County, that have been peeled from the 42nd District and cast south through periodic redistricting based on Census data. It makes pragmatic sense to redistrict block-by-block within a dense urban center rather than mile-by-mile in decentralized rural areas; and as the 42nd has become successively less of a swing district and more safe for Republicans through these reapportionments, that’s had a strengthening effect on the makeup of the 40th, which was never especially “swingy” from the outset. The 40th had become a district the Democrats could not lose.
Until, perhaps, now.
From statehood to the turn of this century, Washington had used unique populist methods to winnow a slate of candidates for the general election. Through most of that history, the method was the blanket primary. The top candidate from each major party earned a spot on the general election ballot—regardless of whether the candidate placed first or second in the primary. In 2000, the two major national parties successfully sued states like Washington and California that used such blanket primaries on the grounds the procedure did not yield them fine control over their own candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed the exclusive clubs should have more control over their members and overturned the tried-and-true (and popular) blanket primary. After clumsy attempts at a replacement, the state settled on what’s become known as the top-two or jungle primary.
In a jungle primary, the top two vote-getters in a primary election move on to the general election—regardless of party affiliation. In theory (and in practice in a number of state elections since 2007), districts around the state could feature general election runoffs between two Democrats or two Republicans. The latter has happened in at least two election cycles in south-central Washington, where there is a surfeit of Republican candidates and of conservative voters who want to elect them.
In theory, the jungle primary allows for two candidates from the majority party to advance to the second round, creating conditions for a moderate with more appeal to a greater number of voters. There is a perverse possibility, however, that an overabundance of candidates from the majority party could eclipse one another in an electoral effect called “vote-splittting.”
Vote-splitting is essentially a math problem where, for example, one party with two candidates and only 41 percent popular support would beat another party with three candidates and 59 percent popular support if voters split their votes evenly among candidates for their own party. This happened in Washington’s 2016 primary for state treasurer, where Democrats won a majority of the vote but failed to move on to the general election. And, without some constructive intervention, it is ferociously likely to happen again in the 40th District this fall.
Four excellent candidates with strong bases of support among Democrats want to replace Kris Lytton this fall. If the general makeup of voters in a 40th District midterm election may be considered 60 percent Democrat, each of these candidates could garner 15 percent of the total electorate. The four all draw from the same pool of support. Two Republicans have stepped into the race and could theoretically split the remaining 40 percent of the vote between them—even if neither of them campaigned particularly hard and had limited financial support, effectively playing the role of spoiler.
The situation is fearsomely similar to that faced by Senator Kevin Ranker when he first ran for the open seat in the 40th District in 2008. A crowded field of Democrats tied up and eclipsed one another in the primary, allowing the lone Republican to sail through as the top voter-getter with 32 percent of the vote. That’s essentially all the votes the Republican received in the following general election, with Ranker corralling and consolidating 63 percent of the vote in this very blue district.
Ranker was assisted in several key ways. First, there was no second Republican to siphon and split votes in a top-two. Second, several Democrats set aside and shuttered their own campaigns in order to boost other Dems. They sacrificed their own aspirations and support networks to deliver a Democrat with star power into the top-two. It was moreover a time when there were kingmakers among party elites, and a methodology of a collective party leadership picking its winners that has fallen aggressively out of favor in the wreckage of 2016.
Those conditions are unlikely to assert themselves in 2018; and the window has already closed for any of the field of candidates to voluntarily withdraw in order to improve the odds of Democrats winning the 40th District this fall.
The parameters of a perfect storm: The stars of 40th Democrats are great and gifted. Their skills are impressive, their fundraising capacity is enormous, and their campaigning powers are unparalleled. And they’ll all be competing over a matter of weeks for the same finite set of like-minded voters. And therein looms the catastrophe.