Washington Republicans woke up after Election Day to a crushingly familiar math problem bedeviling their prospects in statewide races: a cratering of support in King County.
Their gubernatorial candidate, Loren Culp, pulled just 25.5% of the King County vote — the worst showing in the state’s most populous county in at least four decades.
And the GOP barely put up a fight in the county’s legislative races, getting swept in once-competitive Eastside suburban districts by double-digit margins.
Democrats, meanwhile, were celebrating wins in all but one statewide race.
But the party lost ground in one key traditionally blue-collar legislative district along the coast, with two conservative Democratic legislators losing their seats to Republicans. Those losses balanced out the two seats Democrats flipped elsewhere, preventing the party from making gains in the Legislature.
The trends in Washington echo a national realignment driven by polarization over President Donald Trump, who has driven many suburban voters away from the Republican Party, while intensifying GOP support in more rural and conservative areas.
“This is another way that state politics and local politics is entirely nationalized,” said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, noting blue and red districts are becoming more homogenous.
Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the UW, agreed: “We have geographically sorted ourselves, and we see this in miniature in Washington.”
GOP: Demonizing Seattle not working
Republican leaders know they have a King County problem, but not necessarily how to solve it.
Cynthia Cole, the county Republican Party chair, all but threw up her hands in exasperation when asked about the county’s political leanings.
She characterized the majority of county voters as liberals who want to defund police, raise taxes and turn a blind eye to homelessness and drug addiction.
“Yes, the party has to do better in King County, yet when the voters don’t seem to care about the issues we believe are important (lower taxes, public safety, etc) then they aren’t going to be willing to consider a different point of view,” Cole said in an email.
This year, running a familiar playbook, the state and county GOP explicitly cast Seattle and its leaders as villains, amplifying Trump’s designation of the state’s biggest city as an “anarchist jurisdiction” and running ads with images of violent clashes between protesters and police.
It didn’t work.
With a booming tech economy and a highly educated workforce, the Seattle area has grown increasingly politically akin to California, where the real battles are between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, and the GOP often an afterthought.
O’Mara said the Republican Party, once competitive in suburban areas around Seattle, shifted during Barack Obama’s presidency with the tea party movement. “It has become so much more socially conservative, really taken up the flag of culture-war politics, and sharp-edged populism,” she said.
Caleb Heimlich, the state Republican Party chair, acknowledges the GOP needs to reexamine its game plans to do better in and around King County. “After tonight, we will overhaul our entire strategy,” he said on election night. “We will look at all options.”
The lone exception to the 2020 Republican wipeout in statewide contests was Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who won reelection, becoming the only statewide elected Republican remaining on the contiguous West Coast.
Wyman, who broke from many in the GOP by defending mail balloting despite Trump’s efforts to undermine it, received 41% support in King County.
That’s a threshold that has generally been considered what Republicans need to win statewide, and nearly double the 22% Trump received. She carried all but four counties against Democratic challenger state Rep. Gael Tarleton.
Former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican who lost the 2012 gubernatorial race to Inslee, said he believes the party would have fielded a more competitive gubernatorial candidate this year if Trump had not been president.
“I talked to a lot of potential candidates,” McKenna said. “They were all looking at the landscape and saying we don’t want to be on the ballot with Trump.”
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, state House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and former Congressman Dave Reichert are among the Republicans who declined to run for governor this year.
Culp, the former police chief of Republic, Ferry County, had never before run for office, but beat several GOP rivals in the Aug. 4 primary with an unabashedly conservative message calling for an end to coronavirus restrictions. But Inslee easily defeated him in the general election, leading by 576,000 votes statewide as of Monday.
McKenna said he holds out hope for Republicans turning their fortunes around. With legislative majorities and the governor’s office, he said Democrats are likely to overreach by imposing big new taxes and other policies that could generate a backlash.
In addition, McKenna said that there is a possibility Inslee could land a job in the Cabinet of President-elect Joe Biden, prompting a special election in a lower turnout year that could work to the GOP’s advantage.
“It will still be hard, because it’s Washington state,” he said.
Christina Blocker, a Tacoma-based Democratic political consultant, said that by embracing candidates such as Trump and Culp, Republicans have sown distrust for many communities of color, even as more people of color are seeking office.
“What I do see now is a lot more folks reframing who runs for office, what they look like, what their experiences are,” she said.
This year’s Democratic legislative candidates included perhaps a record number of Black women, with at least three — April Berg, Kirsten Harris-Talley and Jamila Taylor — winning open House seats in the Puget Sound region.
But Blocker acknowledged that Democrats have not been as successful at appealing to some rural and economically depressed communities. “We often focus on our bigger cities,” she said.
Democrats see changes, too
Comparing Democrats’ political growth in King County to the loss of two Democratic lawmakers from the sparsely populated coast might seem a bit mismatched.
But in the years before their current sizable House and Senate majorities, when Democrats had fewer legislative seats, Sen. Dean Takko and Rep. Brian Blake were crucial to the party.
The district — which includes parts of Grays Harbor, Lewis and Cowlitz counties, as well as Pacific and Wahkiakum counties — had been one of the last rural areas in Washington to consistently elect Democratic lawmakers.
That appears set to end, as both Takko and Blake are losing this year to GOP challengers, Jeff Wilson and Joel McEntire.
Their defeats come after Trump in 2016 won Grays Harbor and Pacific counties for the first time in decades. District voters that year also elected Rep. Jim Walsh, a Republican from Aberdeen.
Residents have stayed consistent over the years on issues they care about, said Walsh, like property rights and permitting issues, as well as gun rights.
But even as Takko and Blake opposed some progressive priorities like tax proposals and gun regulations, constituents have watched Washington Democrats as a whole move in a more progressive direction, said Walsh.
“The most important thing to me is the district hasn’t changed,” said Walsh. “Politics has changed around the district.”
Appointed in late 2002 and reelected ever since, Blake is cut from a different cloth than many of his Democratic colleagues.
A former logger and gun-rights supporter who has been seen at least once strolling the Capitol hallways in his overalls, Blake has for more than a decade chaired the House committee that handles natural resources and agriculture. In an interview, he touted his work over the years boosting the fish hatcheries and community colleges in his district.
It’s a region that went Democratic with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, said Blake. The last time Grays Harbor County voted for a Republican before Trump, Herbert Hoover was on the ballot.
“When I first started campaigning, it was not uncommon when I went to the door, to see a picture of FDR in the foyer there,” said Blake. “And over 18 years, a lot of those people have passed away.”
“And at the same time, in my opinion, there hasn’t been enough effort to bring economic equality out to rural Washington,” he said.
Blake contends state environmental regulations have stifled development in a region that hasn’t shared in the tech-driven economic boom in Seattle and King County.
In previous generations, Democrats in rural Washington “got a lot of credit for building dams and for watering the desert and for Hanford” nuclear reservation, said Blake. “And now the party has kind of transitioned into demonizing the stuff we built.”
State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski defended the party’s performance around the state and attributed the losses in the 19th District to the area’s struggling economy. “I don’t know if it’s a Democratic issue or a Republican issue as opposed to a frustration issue,” she said.
Even as Democrats look likely to pick up two GOP House seats this year — including one in Whatcom County’s 42nd District — the defeats in the 19th District stung.
“It’s a hard loss to lose Brian,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, and chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. “I think that rural Washington was better off having him in office.”