Reading the tea leaves
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
READING THE TEA LEAVES: Results from the August primary yield our first glimpse of the new political realities following state and federal redistricting efforts. Adjustments for population growth continue to peel away progressive sections of central-south Bellingham and cast them into the interest areas of coastal communities to the south. Those changes have also produced new, geographically large rural districts, the fallout—frankly—of decades of policy defiance of state growth goals.
The fracture of cohesion in countywide alliance is unfortunate, but it is increasingly true that by income and interests Bellingham population grows ever more in common with the San Juans than with the Foothills.
On the ground, this meant progressives simply walked away with results in the 40th Legislative District, with no major party challenges at all (sorry, Greens) for either of the lower state House positions. Democrat Kevin Ranker—certainly one of the most accomplished and gifted of the state’s newest senators—similarly walked away with gigantic numbers over his Republican challenger, John Swapp.
Results were analogous in the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District, similarly traced along the populous, progressive blue coast of the northwest Washington metropolitan area. Incumbent Congressman Rick Larsen dominated a field of six candidates, including several Republican challengers. The Democrat gathered nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Inland, results trended in the opposite direction.
Republicans were again favored in the once fiercely volatile 42nd Legislative District, which includes nearly all of Whatcom County except for Bellingham south of the university. Incumbents for the lower state House each dominate their respective Democratic challengers by a ten-point lead. The similarity of results in the two races suggests a hardening division that may represent the “new normal” for this former swing district.
Again analogous, Republican John Koster received the majority share of votes in the new 1st Congressional District, a vast rural district covering Cascade foothills communities from most of Whatcom south into mountainous King County. The race among Democrats for this open seat was a fierce and divisive blue-on-yellow dogfight, with a last-minute campaign spending blitz by Suzan DelBene securing the number two slot for her on the November ballot. Arguably, DelBene is the Democrat most likely to appeal to this very competitive district of diverse interests in a general election.
The peculiarities of Washington’s top-two primary mean that Republicans and Democrats are not guaranteed a slot in the general election. Conceivably, Dems—for example—could cancel out one another, leaving only Republicans to squabble on the general ballot. That this has not happened in any statewide contest in which the parties have each fielded candidates, and appears unlikely to happen, is testament to the enduring power of the two-party system, even in Washington, and—frankly—the deep polarity of political opinion in the broader United States.
We’ve written before that primaries are excellent indicators of general elections, but presidential elections surely inject a unique energy of their own, either dragging on coattails the interest among low-information, single-issue voters or—sometimes—depressing interest when those single issues are not excitingly addressed. In past decades, the announcement of presidential election results in earlier time zones could collapse local elections on West Coast Election Day. Vote-by-mail has filed down mercurial defeatism, and the 42nd District races are easily in play, boosted on excitement generated at the national level and a turnout likely twice the strength of the primary.
Similarly, a couple of statewide initiatives generate powerful excitement among ordinarily disengaged progressives. Strong opposition to drug reform and marriage equality is flagging among dogged conservatives. The passion is not equally distributed. This, too, may factor in close local races.
What accounts for the strong progressive vibe in the coastal areas and the mixed (though definitely right-leaning) results inland? We’ll argue it’s the political fallout resulting from poor land-use policy and loose urban growth boundaries, which have gentrified rural areas. The vast irony of aggressive right-wing policy on growth and development is the slow unwinding of the right-wing core. Sprawl carries in its DNA resistance to future sprawl.
Looking at the larger picture, the biggest loser in 2012 is the state Tea Party—the aggressive core of movement conservatives—with incumbents barely holding on, many challengers thrown down, and no significant gains on the horizon. Swapp is roundly defeated. Using a standard methodology that assumes every non-GOP vote will continue to be so in November, and that predicts movement conservatives who will vote in November have voted in August and that scattered Dems will knit and reunite around their candidate and their president, Koster looks similarly undone in a close election.
Elsewhere around the state, moderate Republicans typically prevailed over Tea Party challenges, including the race for governor. Nationally, the Tea Party appears to be headed toward some mighty trainwreck in November, where the most unappealing, uncharismatic anti-government Christianist Dominonists have splintered out moderate conservative challengers and must now somehow appeal to moderate mainstream voters.
Wacky Whatcom County is, as usual, an outlier here. Conservative voters favored Shahram Hadian over moderate McKenna at roughly three times the rate of conservative voters statewide. The anti-Sharia Dominionist minister collected nearly one voter among every 14 in Whatcom County; he eked out little more than 3 percent statewide. No other county, even the reddest, comes close to matching the towering reactionary nuttiness in Whatcom’s hinterlands.
Crazy is as crazy does, and this may well be the representation Whatcom sends to Olympia.