Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, who has been taking our state’s political temperature for decades, noticed something a bit unusual when he was tabulating his latest opinion survey.
It was not long after a Republican had surprisingly won the race for city attorney in Seattle — where we hadn’t elected someone who swings red for 30 years.
Elway’s statewide poll, which he now conducts for news site Crosscut, showed a sudden, sharp increase in voters who were willing, when he called them, to say “Yes, I am a Republican.”
“It’s as big of a jump in party ID for one party as we’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve been doing these surveys,” Elway told me.
Republicans could scarcely go lower. As documented in this space repeatedly, the Donald Trump years completely ravaged the party around here.
Republican officeholders went all but extinct in King County. They were wiped out in most local suburbs. Washington was kind of a purplish-blue state when Trump came down the escalator in 2015. (Republicans controlled our state Senate, for instance.) But by the time he shambled off the rubble-filled stage a year ago, Republicans here had lost five state Senate seats as well as control of that body, along with seven seats in the state House (where they now trail 58 to 41). They’d also lost a congressional seat and today have zero statewide office holders remaining on the contiguous 48’s West Coast.
Washington state voters willing to self-identify as Republican hit an all-time low last year, at just 18%, down from the more typical mid-30s, according to Elway’s poll. That’s heading toward third-party territory.
But Trump is gone (for now anyway). The latest poll, released this month, shows Republicans surging 11 points, to 29%. This still trails Democrats, but only by seven points instead of more than 20 a few years ago.
Elway said he isn’t sure the exact reasons for the revival.
“Joe Biden is hitting a new low point every week, and the Democrats are in a circular firing squad again and again,” Elway said. “So that probably has a lot to do with it — there’s widespread disappointment in the national scene.”
Add in omicron gloom, inflation and the natural inclination of voters to favor the out-of-power party in off-year elections, and you’ve possibly got some sort of red wave building, Elway said.
It’s not only the national scene. Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, who leads Republicans at the state House and is in his sixth term, said he’s rarely seen Democrats in Olympia be this discombobulated.
“They’ve always been very disciplined in how they would proceed, especially under (former state House) Speaker Frank Chopp,” Wilcox said. “But right now they’re defensive and backpedaling on a number of things.”
This is true. Democrats are using up a lot of oxygen this year on going back to undo, pause or fix some high-profile reforms they passed in recent years. One is a long-term care program that was botched in the rollout last fall, and another is some policing bills passed last spring that proved confusing and unworkable out on the streets.
They’ve also created needless controversies, such as the now-pulled bill to promote racial equity by reducing penalties for drive-by shootings. This past week I wrote about an off-key effort to reduce the amount of in-person instructional time in schools, at the same time pandemic-weary parents are clamoring for the exact opposite. One Democratic senator emailed me later to say the hearing on that bill was an unforced error and “painful.”
I’ve got a theory about all this: Democrats are lost without Donald Trump.
He was the Death Star around which they could organize their feisty resistance. Without that, they’re wandering. At the national level they’re in leaderless combat between factions of the party, with Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal storming from the left and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin hunkering down in the center.
Manchin won this latest round no contest. (One conservative magazine dubbed Jayapal the political “loser of the year — everything she does creates catastrophe for the Democrats.”)
I don’t know about that — there’s still time for them to compromise and pass something. But my point is: It never occurred to Jayapal and Manchin to go at one another back when they had Trump.
Ditto in reverse with the surge in local voters self-identifying as Republican again. It’s because Trump is gone (again — for now). He was so toxic and polarizing that many moderate or right-leaning people hid, and now it’s safer to come back out of that closet. Even in Seattle, apparently.
So Trump’s absence is reviving the Republicans, who love him and want him back. And it’s killing Democrats, who hate him and hope he stays damaged goods forever.
Both parties ought to orbit around something less poisonous. Like agendas that they can actually pass.
Until then, it’s the oddest moment yet in our tribal politics — that it’s Democrats who paradoxically may most need the unthinkable to happen. Which is a Donald Trump comeback.