Insights | Analysis

The Sky Isn’t Falling: Democrats Won’t Lose the Washington Legislature

Election season means it’s time for each political Party to strike fear into the hearts of their base donors, painting a bleak picture of what the world will look like if the opposition wins—or, if you’re already the losing Party, why how bleak the world looks is the fault of the Party in power. It doesn’t actually matter what’s happening on the ground; every two years, political fundraisers act like the sky is falling. It works (sorta). And everyone’s in on the gag—the candidates who’re afraid to lose, the consultants who get paid the more the campaign raises,1 along with the PACs and 501c4 advocacy organizations that have much of the same donor base.

Washington state’s particular flavor of doom-forecasting relies on its history as a swing state. For much of the 20th century, yes, believe it or not, dearest reader, Washington—the first state to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage, home of Fox News’ biggest strawmen: effete coffee-drinking Puget Sound liberals, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, and the most visible elected socialist in the country—was considered a swing state.

This was in no small part because Washington voters had historically been content splitting their ticket. When the political parties were closer ideologically, it was relatively common to vote for Republican Governors and Democratic legislators. However, national Republicans’ transparent embrace of white supremacists—in the service of shoring up their base—has made that position, outright racism, untenable for most Washington voters.

Since Reagan’s 1984 re-election, national Republicans have been losing in Washington, creating a downward pressure on state Republicans. Even as national Democrats struggled to secure majorities from 1988-2008 (most notably, Bill Clinton), the margin of victory for our state Democrats has grown with every election cycle.

Statewide Democratic Margins Pres-v-Gov-Elections-768x474

On the one hand, the multi-decade gambit at the national level has worked out for Republicans: their base is as fired up as ever before (🎶 hello, treason, my old friend 🎶). Despite putting forth one of the least qualified gubernatorial nominees in the 21st century, Loren Culp still secured over 43% of the vote. On the other hand, credentialed, center-right state GOP figure heads like Rob McKenna and Chris Vance have been critical of the Republican Party, abandoning it altogether—and that was before Trump was sworn into office, which threw the future of Washington state’s GOP into further chaos.

These headwinds at the top of the ticket could easily be written off if the same trends weren’t cascading down to the legislative district level. In fact, the smaller sizes, geographic and demographic diversity, as well as the range of candidates put forth in legislative races should benefit the GOP (check out our last analysis which shows they have nearly double the first-time candidates than Democrats and 41 uncontested races this cycle alone). However, an Elway analysis shows that the situation for them is even more dire. The average split between partisan candidates across legislative districts suggests Republicans are alienating everyone except their approximately 40% base of Washington voters. All this helped fuel dynamics that produced some of the biggest Democratic majorities in the legislature in decades and, most importantly, the most racially diverse caucuses ever.

Years Democratic Margin Dem. Performance Rep. Performance
2016-2018 16% 57% 41%
2004-2014 10% 54% 44%
1992-2002 1% 50% 49%

Washington voters are fluent in identity politics and believe strongly in the values of representation. They are not, however, strictly partisan Democrats. Even the most reliably blue King County is pulled leftward by Socialist Alternative, Democratic Socialist Alternative, and the Working Families Party. At best, for Democrats, Washington is increasingly voting against Republicans.

A major factor driving the leftward tilt is that Washington has become a relatively young state (median age, 38). We’ve added over 1M voters since 2000 (out of 4.9M registered and 4.1M turnout in 2020). Over 20% of voters—54% of which live in central Puget Sound—became eligible to vote after Obama’s 2008 election in a radically different climate from their predecessors. Which is to say, a rapidly growing contingent of Washington voters don’t remember a Republican winning a statewide election, aren’t comfortable splitting tickets, and only know the two major parties through the lens of Obama and Trump.

I think of a Chris Hayes-hosted podcast episode of Why Is This Happening? all the time. In it, Hayes talks with political science researcher Michael Tesler about a study showing that before Obama, most voters didn’t know which of the two parties were good for Black people. “From 1992 to 2008, there was no difference between how non-college-educated whites identified,” said Tesler. “They were basically equally likely to be Democrats and Republicans. Beginning in 2008, though, they start to diverge and by 2015, low-educated whites are about 20 points more Republican than Democrats.”

The pandemic has ruined all our memories, but imagine, if you will: white grievance (and its attendant kissin’ cousin, white supremacy) were equal across the political Parties. And before America’s first Black president, those were table stakes. Since then, at least in our state, the ever-crucial swing voter—suburban white women—lean away from those overtly racist cultural signifiers, voting for the ostensible party of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And the attempted insurrection doesn’t help the GOP brand with this particular audience.

Don’t get me wrong: The Suburban White Woman as a voting block will not deliver us from the collapse of American democracy (although there is certainly room in the coalition). And look, the sky is definitely falling. But not because Democrats might lose an election. The sky is literally falling. Our inability to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is literally shrinking the stratosphere. We just experienced—or are in the midst of—historic heat waves. There are unprecedented famines ongoing all over the world. My kids will likely live to see a water war. There is a great, almost unimaginable, urgency underlying the work at hand. But every politician, every campaign, every nonprofit, every c4 needs to stop pretending the urgency is about the abstract exchange of power that elections represent. The seriousness of the calamity we find ourselves in demands honesty. If we can’t pull that off, then asking people for votes won’t matter at all.

1 General Consultants receive a percentage of money spent on campaign mailers and ad buys. And when a campaign raises more money than needed to cover the basic operating expenses, those are typically the next purchases (often on recommendation of the General Consultants), securing more money. Alternatively, fundraising consultants receive a percentage of the funds raised off the bat.