In King County, the most populous in the state, whose county seat is Seattle, there is widespread resentment in its eastern, rural fringes and Republican outer suburbs against the “liberal tyranny” of the city as it enforces “critical areas ordinances” regulating such matters as wetlands setbacks, brushcutting, and new construction and development. Twice, in the 1990s and again in 2004–2006, residents of eastern King County mounted a secession movement to create a new county to be named Cedar, then Cascade, in which they could liberate themselves from the despotic power of liberal Seattle.
Recent statewide elections have been close in the extreme. In the 2000 election for the US Senate, Maria Cantwell beat Slade Gorton, the Republican incumbent, after a statutory recount, by a margin of 2,229 votes, or 0.09 percent. In the 2004 gubernatorial race Dino Rossi appeared to have beaten Christine Gregoire by 261 votes. On the first recount, his majority slipped to 42, but he held the title of governor-elect for six weeks, until a second, manual recount put Gregoire ahead by 129 votes. (Six months later, after a lawsuit brought by the Republican Party, she emerged with her majority increased by four votes, to 133. In their 2008 rematch, Gregoire beat Rossi by 6 percent.)
This year, with unemployment across the state at 9 percent, it seemed that Rossi, now well funded and well known, was in a much stronger position to take Murray’s Senate seat. Certainly the national Democratic Party believed so, and sent Obama himself, Michelle Obama, and Joe Biden out to Washington on separate visits to campaign for Murray, though none of them ventured far outside Seattle. On the Republican side, millions of dollars poured into Rossi’s coffers, much of it from out of state, and much in the form of “dark money” from political groups with unknown donors. In the blanket primary, Rossi easily outpolled his Republican opponent, the former NFL player Clint Didier, who has a farm on the Columbia plateau (a spread of a thousand acres, which is modest by plateau standards), and was endorsed by Sarah Palin.
Rossi ran a canny campaign, finding a scheduling conflict whenever a Tea Party rally beckoned, and representing himself as a mainstream, centrist Republican, his anti-abortion position tempered—somewhat—by his proclaimed willingness to make exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and the mother’s life. The message on his website, “I’m running for the US Senate because our country and our economy are in trouble because of too much spending, debt & government,” aimed to chime with the national mood, but steer well clear of Tea Partyish excess. (Although Tea Party groups are scattered around the state they’ve found little of the traction that they’ve gained in other parts of the US.) Rossi carried eastern Washington by large margins, and made some deep inroads into the western Washington vote, winning in ten of the nineteen counties west of the mountains, yet he lost the state decisively.
Murray has been an effective senator since her election in 1992, especially in the matter of bringing earmarks back to her home state. When eastern Washington’s largest newspaper, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, endorsed her last month, it noted her “fairness” in bringing federal money and jobs to the eastern half of the state, while commending Rossi for his “philosophy.” Murray dazzles no one, but her seniority in the Democratic leadership and on the Appropriations Committee have given her the kind of financial power that made the late Ted Stevens so valuable to Alaska. Her “just a mom in tennis shoes” style has made her unusually popular among her constituents, with whom she talks simply and accessibly. For this, she was always polling well ahead of Rossi among women voters, though Rossi appeared to have the edge among men.
The local rule of thumb is that a Republican running for the US Senate or the governor’s office must break 40 percent in King County, where close to a third of all voters in the state live. When, on election night, the early-ballot returns showed Murray winning in King County by 62 percent to Rossi’s 38 percent, Democrats here went to bed confident that she’d keep her seat. Rossi’s loss, despite his carrying thirty out of thirty-nine counties, rather justifies the old cry from east of the mountains and the dying logging and mill towns on the Olympic Peninsula that once again an election has been fatally skewed by the usual suspects, those damned Seattle liberals.
Much the same pattern has held in races for the US House. The two seats east of the Cascades have been won by their Republican incumbents, with overwhelming majorities. A third Republican, Dave Reichert, whose district straddles King and Pierce Counties, was reelected by a 5 percent margin. The only Democratic loss was in an open seat in largely rural southwest Washington, vacated by Brian Baird and won by the Republican Jaime Herrera.
Herrera, who’s thirty-two, takes an absolutist stand against abortion, but is an otherwise straight-down-the-line free-market conservative, with distinct humanitarian tendencies, who knocked out two Tea Party contenders in her primary (they labeled her a RINO—Republican In Name Only—and a “liberal”). The last House seat to be decided was in District 2, which sprawls northward from the outer suburbs of Seattle across six counties (including a small, bite-sized chunk of King) to the Canadian line. Here the Democratic incumbent, Rick Larsen, has just managed to scrape past his opponent, John Koster, a Sarah Palin anointee, with a lead of around 2 percent.
Washington has been lightly scathed by the gale of anti-Democrat, anti-Obama loathing that swept the US heartland but seems to have lost much of its force as it reached the West Coast, and was felt here only as an uncomfortably stiff breeze. Nor has there been any sign here of the “enthusiasm gap”: though a final figure for statewide turnout (not a word that works well for an election held by mail) hasn’t yet been published, it’s clear that many more people voted in Washington in 2010 than did in the 2006 midterm election (64.5 percent), and when the last ballot paper has been counted, the turnout is likely to come within a whisker of the midterm record of 72 percent in 1970.
—November 11, 2010