Washington’s most reliably Democratic county went red for the first time in nearly a century. How will Democrats respond?
John Hughes has lived in the most reliably Democratic county in Washington for seven decades and could sense this election year was different.
“I felt it coming. I could feel it in the tips of my toes,” said Hughes.
Hughes’ consistently blue county may surprise you. It’s not King County, where the majority of voters cast ballots for a Republican governor as recently as 1980 and voted for President Reagan in 1984.
Grays Harbor County hasn’t voted GOP for president since 1928. The Pacific Coast county last went for a Republican governor in 1924. And Democrats have represented Aberdeen in the state Legislature all but once since 1949.
This year, voters flipped at all three levels to Republicans. In fact, seven of the nine Democrats up for a statewide office lost in Grays Harbor County.
That may not register on the political Richter scale at the state Democratic Party headquarters in Seattle — Jay Inslee won, Democrats picked up a seat in the state Senate and signature progressive measures on the minimum wage and guns easily passed.
But there’s an important message for Democrats to hear in Grays Harbor County’s flip to red this year. It is the equivalent of the nation’s Rust Belt revolt for Donald Trump. The Blue Dog Democrats came home to the party, generation after generation. This year, they voted with their feet.
Hughes retired as editor and publisher at The Daily World in Aberdeen after a 42-year journalism career and is now a state historian. His assessment: “Having a ‘D’ after your name is no longer a litmus test to get elected in Grays Harbor County. I trace everything to the radiating fear and loathing against Seattle liberals.”
Grays Harbor County, like the Rust Belt, has been left behind by the new economy. It peaked in population in the 1920s, when Aberdeen was a timber titan twice the size of Olympia. Then mills slowly shut down, and the union jobs left with them.
It’s not all gloom on the beach. The unemployment rate finally dipped below 10 percent, the Port of Grays Harbor has a strong automobile-export line and there’s a new winery.
But there is little evidence of the post-recession boom that has gripped Seattle — with one big exception being a beautiful, growing oceanside resort, Seabrook, that caters to Seattle wealth.
The chip-on-the-shoulder resentment against “Seattle liberals” is most often filtered through environmentalism. It’s a familiar story in Washington politics — protections of the Northern spotted owl in the 1980s were celebrated by environmentalists even as tongue-in-cheek “spotted owl soup” appeared on diner menus in depressed timber towns.
That tension has made rural Democrats like state Sen. Dean Takko of Longview a rarer species in Olympia. When I asked him what his constituents aren’t getting from Olympia, he pointed to a bill that got through this year’s Legislature to help older paper mills get renewable-energy credits for using wood chips to fuel their factories.
Inslee vetoed the bill, taking an environmentalist hard line on the definition of renewable power as being solar and wind. That killed an incentive for factories to upgrade.
“We’re Democrats because we support the bigger social issues — women’s issues, LGBT issues,” said Takko. “But we’re also realists. We understand you have to have jobs. Nothing says you can’t support the social issues and go out and cut a tree down.”
At a union rally before the election, Takko saw the historical shift coming. Instead of a gathering of Democratic voters, “I couldn’t believe how many were wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” Takko said. “Once the ball started rolling, Republicans got the votes on down the line.”
This election, of course, was its own unique storm. Trump’s rhetoric was corrosive for moderate King County Republicans, but his economic populism hit the sweet spot in Grays Harbor County.
Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, who was elected at the astonishing age of 23, sees the election as a potential inflection point for his constituents.
“This has been a slow build. I don’t think this is the new norm, but I think we’re going to be a purple county for a while,” he said. “Until people start getting the result people want, I don’t think that’s going to change.”
It’s up to Democrats in Olympia to respond. It is easy in Seattle to dismiss Trump voters in Grays Harbor County as bigots or xenophobes. But that ignores their legitimate beefs with the widening rural-urban economic chasm.