A Deeper Dive
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
A DEEPER DIVE: Firming results from successive counts of late ballots yields additional insight into the August primary and the peculiar dynamics unfolding in Whatcom County’s northern tier. And that, in turn, yields insight into that fabled and elusive Blue Wave that may be standing offshore, gaining power for a rush inland this November.
Late returns in the 40th Legislative District produced a virtual dead heat for second place among three candidates. As we noted at the outset of this race, this bluest of districts can easily support a general election contest between the platforms of two Democrats; however, Republican Michael Petrish appears to have held on to his position in the top-two by little more than 600 votes.
In every race in Whatcom’s 42nd Legislative District, Republican incumbents failed to hit the 50 percent mark in returns—and that is just remarkable in an election with middling turnout. Just 44 percent of ballots were returned, according to election officials, a level of (dis)interest consistent with the past several presidential midterm cycles. Those past midterm primaries tended to skew conservative, though, which suggests a strange undercurrent at work in this election.
In other parts of the state, a similar surprising dynamic unfolded.
In Spokane, where only a quarter of ballots were returned, Republican stalwart Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers struggled against challenger Lisa Brown in the conservative 5th Congressional District. In southwest Washington’s conservative 3rd Congressional District, incumbent Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler found herself in a dead heat against surging Democrat Carolyn Long.
In general, conservatives lost ground in every corner of the state—including the Fourth Corner.
Until the past several election cycles, the 42nd was a politically dynamic swing district, sending to Olympia a fiercely centrist, pragmatic and independent-minded mix of Democrats and Republicans. Returns began to calcify during the Bush administration and successive years, leaning conservative in nonpresidential elections (in presidential elections—with voter turnout at 80 percent and returns topping 100,000—the county simply runs out of conservatives, and turns blue).
But perhaps the needle may be swinging a new direction.
In 2010, Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen—whose reelections always fall in a lower turnout off-presidential year—received 61.5 percent in the primary and 60 percent in the general. In 2014, he again received a plurality of 57 percent in the primary and 58.7 percent in the general. His returns in the recent primary collapsed by more than ten points. Reps. Vincent Buys and Luanne VanWerven similarly failed to break 50 percent in this election.
These results are wonderfully baffling, and particularly so given voters under the age of 40—the largest voting cohort, and the one pointedly hostile to the current flavor of right-wing politics—appear to have sat out this off-year primary in typical numbers, returning their ballots at scarcely more than half of the intensity of other voting age groups, according to polling models. The conclusion must be that independent voters and those only tenuously aligned with Republican party values cast their ballots in this primary for Democrats. And there appears to be a measurable “enthusiasm gap” for the incumbents even in their strongholds.
Population growth in Whatcom’s urban centers may also be a factor.
Ferndale—an affordable community growing at about 30 percent per decade—returned ballots favoring the two Democrats; as did Blaine.
Bellingham—which comprises about 30 percent of the vote in LD42—voted powerfully in favor of the Democrats by a three-to-one margin.
Ericksen performed commandingly (above 75 percent) in only a handful of districts in Lynden and the surrounding farming community.
For Democrats, the immediate challenge lies in healing divides from a fractious and ambitious primary, and bringing together united effort for the push into the general election in November.
Gracious in defeat as he was in his campaign, Alex Ramel was sanguine about his placement in the 40th District. Over successive counts of late ballots, Ramel floated briefly into second place. But he believes an extended campaign against fellow Democrat Debra Lekanoff would not be in the interests of building the sorts of unified coalitions his party needs to appeal to independent or loosely aligned voters required for big blue gains in November. He pledged he would continue to work on those campaigns.
Tim Ballew II was similarly gracious in conceding defeat to fellow Democrat Pinky Vargas in the 42nd District.
“I ran for state Senate because I want Whatcom County to have a stronger infrastructure of roads and broadband so that business can thrive, a future for all Whatcom students that guarantees a path toward a meaningful family wage job, and for everyone to have access to quality healthcare and a strong safety net of social services that helps every elder, worker and child in our community,” the former chairman of Lummi Nation said.
“Pinky will fight for those priorities and that is why I am proud to endorse her,” he said. “It is inspiring to see the diversity of candidates in races across the country. Women and people of color are bringing a welcome and often unheard voice to politics.”
Pinky Vargas replied, “I’m looking forward to joining forces to unite the Democratic party and beat Doug Ericksen. These results put us in a very solid position to compete in the general election. With the higher turnout in the general and the enthusiasm we’re seeing among Democrats this year, I’m confident we’ll be victorious in November.”