Because Washington state now votes by mail, elections here tend to play out, at an agonizingly slow speed, over many days and, sometimes, weeks. So it was a relief when Dino Rossi, the Republican challenger, conceded to Senator Patty Murray less than 48 hours after the polls closed, with 1.8m ballots counted and around 600,000 still to come. Murray then led by 45,000 votes, just over 2 percent, which might on paper make Rossi’s concession look premature. But Rossi understands the odd demographics of this state as well as anyone, and his goose looked cooked even on election night, when Murray’s lead was barely 14,000.
In the run-up to the election, I saw Washington described by commentators as a blue state—“very blue,” “reliably blue,” “stark blue.” But it’s only by a series of electoral flukes in closely fought races that it has a Democratic governor (Christine Gregoire) and two Democratic senators (Murray and Maria Cantwell). Six of its nine members of Congress are—or were before the election—Democrats. These numbers mask a deep, and very nearly equal, tribal division between the rural and urban parts of the state.
Democrats inhabit the low shores of Puget Sound, mostly on its eastern side, in a ragged trail of port-cities that stretches from Bellingham, close to the Canadian border, through Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, to Olympia, the state capital, at the southern end of the sound. In Seattle, our very liberal Democrat congressman, Jim McDermott, is being returned to D.C. for his twelfth term with a majority (so far) of 82 percent of the vote, which is a tad down from his 2008 figure. In fact, most of western Washington’s Democratic candidates for the House (four successful, one unsuccessful, and one yet to be decided) defended the administration’s record in their campaigns. But when you drive eastward over the Interstate 90 bridge that crosses the long and skinny Lake Washington, to Bellevue and beyond, you enter Republican territory, whose redness steadily deepens over the next three hundred miles to the Idaho border.
The north-south line of “the mountains,” meaning the Cascade Range, forty miles east of Seattle, is a rigid political frontier. On November 2, all twenty counties east of the mountains voted for Dino Rossi, while Patty Murray’s support was concentrated in the urban settlements on Puget Sound.
As one crests Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, the whole character of Washington state changes before one’s eyes: abundant rainfall gives way to near-desert; ferns, salal, blackberry, and Douglas fir to sagebrush and stunted pinyon pine; high tech industries (Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon.com) to irrigated agriculture and cattle ranches. Median incomes drop, population density thins.
Republican eastern Washington was importantly shaped by FDR’s New Deal. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is its genius loci, along with ten further dams downstream of it. The dams, which have turned the river into a string of inert lakes, were originally meant to transform the Columbia plateau into a quilt of small family farms, but now supply subsidized water and electricity to corporate acreages, whose circular fields, each a mile in diameter, are continually moistened by mechanical sprinklers, and whose vast yields of potatoes are processed onsite into frozen pre-cooked french fries and hash browns, before being trucked out in refrigerated eighteen-wheelers on the plateau’s narrow, rifle-shot-straight roads. This desolate style of industrial agriculture dwarfs the orchards and smallholdings that line the rivers a thousand feet below the plateau.
The violent contrast between the eastern and western halves of the state, and between the cities and their immediate rural hinterlands, has made for a peculiar style of confrontational politics in Washington, much of it centered on land-use and environmental issues: on one hand, the farming, mining, timber, and construction industries, and on the other “Seattle liberals,” as people living east of Lake Washington like to say, who are held to be bent on destroying the livelihoods of their eastern neighbors. In the early 1990s, the cause of the spotted owl led to drastic restrictions on logging in national forests and a sharp—in many places terminal—decline of the timber industry; more recently, there’s been a movement to demolish the dams on the lower Snake River in order to restore salmon runs there, which has caused great anger among eastern Washington farmers, who rely on the Snake for irrigation and for transport of their crops. 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 (though Tea Party groups are scattered around the state they’ve found little of the traction that they’ve gained in the US). Rossi carried eastern Washington by large margins, and made some deep inroads into the western Washington vote, winning in nine of the seventeen 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 her 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, or is currently holding, 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 comfortably reelected by an 8 percent margin. The only Democratic loss so far has been an open seat in largely rural southwest Washington, vacated by Brian Beard and won by the Republican Jaime Herrera, who has converted Baird’s 28 percent majority in 2008 to a 6 percent majority of her own.
Herrera, who’s 31, 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”). One House seat is still in play, 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, is at present very narrowly (just short of one percent) ahead of his Tea Party opponent, John Koster, a Sarah Palin anointee.
So far (and touching wood for Larsen’s victory), Washington has been lightly scathed by the gale of anti-Democrat, anti-Obama loathing that has swept the US heartland but seems to have lost much of its force as it reached the West Coast, and was felt here as little more than an uncomfortably stiff breeze. Nor has there been any sign here of the “enthusiasm gap”: statewide turnout, estimated on election day as roughly 66 percent, is now said to be likely to rival, or even cap, the 72 percent record for a midterm election, set in 1970.