King and Snohomish counties now account for more than 40 percent of the state’s population.
Republicans already struggle to win statewide elections in Washington — and it looks like it will only get harder going forward.
That’s because the blue-no-matter-who Seattle area has more electoral weight to throw around than ever, according to new demographic data from the state.
In 2016, King and Snohomish counties crossed a threshold: The two now account for more than 40 percent of the state’s population, with a total of 2.9 million residents.
Both have grown significantly faster than most of the state since the 2012 elections. King County increased its population by 7.6 percent, ranking No. 1 in the state for rate of growth. Snohomish County grew by 6.9 percent, coming in third, behind sparsely populated Franklin County.
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And the state’s other most liberal counties — all on the Western side of the state — also gained rapidly in population.
Along with King and Snohomish, seven counties voted for President Obama, recreational pot and marriage equality in 2012: Island, Jefferson, Kitsap, San Juan, Skagit, Thurston and Whatcom. Combined, the nine grew 67 percent faster than the rest of Washington, and now account for 54 percent of the state’s population.
Conservative Eastern Washington grew at a much slower pace overall. Nine counties in Washington either shrank or grew by less than 1 percent in this period. Eight of them are on the east side of the state (Grays Harbor is the odd one out).
“It’s not going to help Republicans,” said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, “because people who move to places tend to be politically like the people who are already there.”
Donovan says social-science research has demonstrated that people tend to cluster around others with similar ideology — so you can bet that the new folks in the Seattle area will vote a lot like the longtime residents.
“People live near people like them. It’s maybe not conscious,” he said. “Democrats tend to marry Democrats and Republicans tend to marry Republicans. It’s kind of like that in terms of where people move, as well.”
Chris Vance knows all too well that Washington’s demographics aren’t trending in his favor. The former state GOP chairman is challenging for Democrat Patty Murray’s Senate seat this year.
“This is nothing new in Washington,” he said, “but the trend has been increasing exponentially.”
Vance says the Republican party struggles with a message that mostly appeals to white, rural voters — a shrinking population here and around the country.
““For the Republican party to survive, we have to be able to talk to nonwhite voters, particularly Hispanic voters, and millennials,” he said.
Vance thinks Republicans have to back off divisive social issues.
“The key word is tolerance,” he said. “You don’t have to be speaking in favor of gay marriage or you don’t have to be pro-choice — but just don’t go out and campaign on these issues … it’s a matter of emphasis.”
Vance says the party needs to focus on issues that unite people, like growing the economy. And he thinks a message like that can make inroads even in the most liberal areas.
“Americans want to get rich, Americans want to do well. Seattle and King County are full of young entrepreneurs,” he said.
National security is another issue he thinks can be a winner for Republicans campaigning in a blue state like Washington.
“Right now it’s all about bathrooms, and deporting people, and banning people from coming into this country. And voters immediately tune you out and say ‘Oh, you’re one of them. You’re a hater.’ We can’t survive if we keep doing that.”