After all the drama and waves of massive spending, the 2022 elections resulted in very little change. Here in Washington state, that means Democrats will continue to govern, virtually unchallenged. I ran for the state Senate this year as an independent, largely because I felt compelled to do something to disrupt our calcified two-party system. I lost because in a Republican district Republican voters defaulted to voting for a Republican. But the race did give me an up-close perspective on our state’s current politics, and the evidence is clear that partisanship is now the only thing that matters.
Washington state Republicans began the year with high hopes. They had the wind at their back due to the natural advantages the opposition party traditionally enjoy in a midterm election. They had a top of the ticket candidate, Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, who was raising serious money. They were certain Rep. Kim Schrier was vulnerable in the 8th Congressional District. And they had recruited strong candidates for the Legislature in suburban districts they used to win.
Democrats were worried and on the defensive. They believed they would likely lose two or three seats in the state Senate, and perhaps even the majority in the state House.
The Dobbs abortion decision buoyed Democratic hopes, and the results of the primary election were better than expected, but Republicans remained optimistic, and Democrats remained nervous. I spent some time the last two days of the campaign texting and talking to top Democratic consultants and interest-group leaders. The mood was glum. It was assumed that Democrats from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray down to state legislators were in danger.
But the red wave was a mirage here, just as it was nationally. Murray won big. Schrier won comfortably. And as of this week, Democrats are gaining one seat in the state Senate and one seat in the state House. Democrats’ big majorities in Olympia got just a little bit bigger. The only significant change came in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, where the Republican base handed a seat to the Democrats by replacing Jaime Herrera Beutler as the GOP nominee with super MAGA Joe Kent.
King County remained an impenetrable blue wall. Republicans recruited strong candidates and spent heavily in several suburban King County legislative districts, and lost them all by wide margins. King County absolutely doomed the chances of Smiley, and Republican Matt Larkin, running against Schrier. A Republican candidate cannot win statewide without getting at least 40% in King County, and Republicans can’t win majorities in the Legislature without winning at least a few seats in King County. Republicans are capable of neither. Smiley is only getting 25% of the vote in King County.
Rigid tribal partisanship drives politics now. Outside the few remaining competitive legislative seats, the outcome is predetermined by partisanship. Campaigning is almost a waste of time.
My last two failed attempts to win public office illustrate this. In 2016, I ran for the U.S. Senate against Murray and only raised roughly $600,000. (My campaign virtually stopped once I publicly opposed Donald Trump.) We got 41% of the vote. Tiffany Smiley raised and spent more than $15 million. She now has just under 43% of the vote. Smiley is actually running two points behind my total in King County, and only two points ahead of my total statewide, despite wall-to-wall TV commercials. Fifteen million dollars barely moved the partisan needle.
Likewise, in my race for the state Senate in the 31st Legislative District against incumbent Republican Phil Fortunato, we ran a robust well-funded campaign, and yet I am receiving 44% of the vote, only four points more than the two Democratic state house candidates in our district who raised virtually no money and barely campaigned. Partisanship trumps all other factors.
Democracy, like capitalism, is dependent on competition. The lack of meaningful political competition in Washington state is beginning to raise concerns. During the campaign, I heard consistently from business and law enforcement groups that they were supporting Republicans in order to bring more balance to Olympia. Significantly, several big blue-collar unions expressed the same concern. Some unions supported Republicans in key races, or at least refused to support some Democrats. On issues around taxes, the environment, the housing shortage and particularly public safety, I heard a lot of concerns about liberal overreach from state government stakeholders, and even from some Democratic legislators and consultants.
There will be another election in 24 months, but the results are preordained. The only drama might come in the 3rd Congressional District, if Republicans are able to get a credible candidate through the primary.
Our two-party system has produced one-party rule on the West Coast. The toxicity of the national Republican brand is disqualifying here, no matter what local Republicans do or say during campaigns, leaving the Democrats unchecked. The marketplace of ideas is very, very narrow. Are we all OK with that, or might it be time to seriously talk about an alternative to our two-party system?