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Election Reflections

‘Perfect storm’ hits district deemed safe for GOP

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Some Said it couldn’t be done.

A Democrat can’t win Washington state’s 42nd Legislative District, which consists of Whatcom County but carves out the county’s southwest corner, from State Street in south Bellingham to South Fork Valley. No Democrat had won there since Kelli Linville in 2008, and the part of Bellingham that is inside the 42nd shrunk after the 2010 census.

Recent history has shown the conservative rural vote will overwhelm the liberal urban vote in a district that includes Lynden, Blaine, Ferndale and a whole lot of berry and dairy.

Two-term Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale is much maligned by progressives for any number of reasons. He ate free lunches with lobbyists. He proposed bills to criminalize protest and discriminate against people who are transgender. He took a job under Donald Trump that caused him to miss considerable time in the Senate. In his first term, Ericksen made a mockery of the climate change crisis by inviting Western Washington University geology professor emeritus Don Easterbrook to his Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, to tell everyone the globe was cooling.

In 2014, when high-profile Democrat Seth Fleetwood challenged Ericksen’s re-election bid, Washington Conservation Voters spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Fleetwood at the height of the Cherry Point coal terminal debate. It didn’t help. Ericksen defeated Fleetwood by 17 percentage points.

Rep. Vincent Buys, like Ericksen a 42nd District incumbent in 2014, defeated Democrat Joy Monjure by 16 points. Republican Luanne Van Werven defeated Satpal Sidhu for the other House seat by more than 11 points.

Democrats thought they might fare better in a presidential election year, when voter turnout is higher. Ericksen wasn’t up for election in 2016, but Buys and Van Werven were. Both won easily.

We all know what happened next: Trump became the 45th president of the United States. Democrats have been eager to cast another ballot ever since.

They had some appealing choices this year in the 42nd. Bellingham City Council member Pinky Vargas appeared on the Nov. 6 ballot against Sen. Ericksen after making it through the primary. In the two House races, Democrats this time around didn’t need to nudge a familiar face into the fray. Instead, two political newcomers eager to bring change to the district and the state as a whole stepped forward: Western Washington University professor Sharon Shewmake; and Justin Boneau, a veteran and working-class home renter, who described himself on his campaign website simply as a “normal dad and husband.”

Republicans knew they were in trouble in the 42nd after the primaries. None of the incumbents could attract 50 percent of the vote in the August elections, and the party faithful were looking “disinterested and complacent,” Whatcom County Republican Party Vice Chair Karl Uppiano said.

After those results, Uppiano said, “We definitely mobilized and went at it pretty hard because we recognized the Democrats were motivated to get out the vote.”

The three Democrats were buoyed, certainly, by anti-Trump sentiment that has been dubbed the blue wave.

“What ended up happening was the clash of the titans,” Uppiano said. “What might have been a blue wave, we managed to make it possibly a draw.”

As I write this, the evening of Thurs., Nov. 8, it appears Ericksen and Van Werven will keep their seats—barely—by less than half a percentage point. Shewmake was leading Buys by a full point, giving the Democrats probably one out of three seats in the 42nd.

A lot of money came into the 42nd District Senate race again this year. Vargas and Ericksen combined to take in more than $860,000 for their respective campaigns. That doesn’t include nearly $800,000 in independent expenditures either for or against the candidates. New Directions PAC, which aimed to flip three Republican-held districts in the state, spent six figures on voter outreach for Vargas and TV attack ads on Ericksen.

Whatcom Democrats engaged in their biggest ground game ever to flip the 42nd. No one factor explains the party’s strong showing in the district, according to Alex Ramel, who volunteered and helped fundraise for the Whatcom Democrats after losing in the primaries in his bid for a House seat in the 40th Legislative District.

“Democrats needed a perfect storm to win the 42nd. It’s a gerrymandered district,” Ramel said.

On a particular Saturday morning leading up to Election Day, 111 volunteers showed up to ring doorbells for party-endorsed candidates and initiatives, Ramel said.

“I’ve never seen more than 50 or 60,” he said. “We did twice as much field work as Whatcom County Democrats than we did in 2013”—the previous high-water mark, when Democrats called their campaign “Whatcom Wins” and brought the County Council to a progressive majority.

The Democrats had an ally whose approach complemented that of the party. Riveters Collective targeted unlikely voters in the 42nd—a tactic the Democrats weren’t using. The group, which became a prominent political player after Trump’s election, contacted more than 10,000 “low-propensity progressive voters” in the district and received pledges to vote from 615 of them, said Elizabeth Hartsoch, Riveters Collective vice president.

The group had yet to analyse the effectiveness of this approach, Hartsoch said last week, but she did hear from one such voter on election night at the Riveters’ party at the Shakedown.

“He said he hasn’t voted since voting for Ralph Nader,” Hartsoch said. “He had given up on the process. We knocked on his door, and he filled out a pledge card. He received it in the mail but still didn’t plan to vote. Then a volunteer knocked on his door on Sunday and asked him to pinky-promise to vote, and he did.”

And he showed up at a party for political nerds.

“I think our campaign is an outward sign of the reengagement in civic life since the 2016 election,” Hartsoch said. “People are making a habit of citizenship.”

The enthusiasm of Democrats can be measured by comparing voter participation in 2014 and 2018. Overall in Whatcom County, voter turnout four years ago was 59.8 percent. (It makes sense to compare this year with the most recent midterm election; presidential years always have higher turnout.) This year, voter turnout is almost 76 percent.

Looking only at the 42nd, turnout in the Bellingham precincts was only slightly higher than the district as a whole: 74.8 percent compared to 73.4 percent. What stands out is how much more participation Bellingham voters displayed this year compared to four years ago. While turnout improved by 39 percent overall in the 42nd District from 2014 to 2018, voter participation in the Bellingham part of the 42nd increased by 53 percent.

As Ramel put it, “2014 was a year when Democrats were not inspired to vote, and 2018 was a year when Democrats were really inspired to vote.”

There was more to the Democrats’ success than reviving lethargic voters.

“They weren’t just inspired to vote; they were inspired to volunteer and participate,” Ramel said. People talked to friends about voting. They held “fill out your ballot” parties.

“People engaging in elections in small but incrementally increasing ways—ultimately, that’s what influenced the outcome of this election,” Ramel said.

Another piece of the Democrats’ success story played out in Ferndale. Voters in that city supported Ericksen with more than 63 percent of the vote four years ago. He only got 52.6 percent of Ferndale’s votes this year, making Ferndale the municipality in Whatcom County with the largest swing toward the blue in this year’s elections.

Ferndale has changed a lot in four years. People who might want to live in Bellingham end up in Ferndale, where housing is more affordable.

“I know there’s a lot of high-density housing development going on in Ferndale,” said Uppiano, the Republican vice chair. “It’s been going on for a while. That tends to bring the more urban mindset. What we’re dealing with is an urban vs. rural kind of culture clash, I think. I don’t know how it’s going to play out or how we’re going to deal with it. That’s something we’re going to have to come to grips with, one way or another.”

On the one hand, Uppiano said, it’s normal for the party that is not in power to make a comeback after a new president is elected. Eight years ago, Uppiano was on the front lines of the tea party movement that swept conservatives into office two years after Barack Obama moved into the White House.

“On the other hand, we do have an ongoing Democratic shift in this county that may not be great for conservatives,” Uppiano added. “But I’m hoping we can keep our message out there and stay relevant.”

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