NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, December 5th, 2020

Loss of a presidential bellwether: For decades, Okanogan County telegraphed Washington’s allegiance in federal elections. Not anymore.

The most serene pulse-tak­ing in Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics used to take place amidst gold­en fall col­ors in Washington’s Okanogan Coun­ty, and in talk­ing to reg­u­lars at the Cari­bou Inn, some of whom remem­bered Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The county’s sil­ver min­ers gave their hearts to William Jen­nings Bryan in 1900, but Okanogan Coun­ty would then vote for the win­ner of every pres­i­den­tial elec­tion until Bill Clin­ton in 1992. Okanogan had the nation’s longest streak of win­ners after Crook Coun­ty, Ore­gon, vot­ed in 1992 to reelect George H.W. Bush.

It would not be for long.

The rur­al north-cen­tral Wash­ing­ton coun­ty vot­ed for Bob Dole in 1996.

It has been reli­ably Repub­li­can ever since.

The coun­ty even vot­ed against local ranch­er Peter Gold­mark when he was seek­ing reelec­tion as Washington’s Com­mis­sion­er of Pub­lic Lands.

Our lat­est gen­er­a­tion of polit­i­cal reporters has dis­cov­ered that Clal­lam Coun­ty has a streak going, It has vot­ed for every pres­i­den­tial win­ner since 1980. Big (bleepin’) deal, as Joe Biden would say. The con­ser­v­a­tive Olympic Penin­su­la coun­ty is hard­ly a bell­wether, hav­ing vot­ed against Gov. Jay Inslee, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son and State Lands Com­mis­sion­er Hilary Franz in November.

Still, vot­ing habits and win­ning streaks tell us much about the fas­ci­nat­ing polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion of Wash­ing­ton State, which was admit­ted to the Union in 1889.

I grew up in an era when East­side King Coun­ty dis­tricts, notably the 41st and 48th, were the Repub­li­cans’ heart­land. They didn’t real­ly elect leg­is­la­tors to the State House or State Sen­ate. That’s because an incum­bent would fre­quent­ly resign mid-term, with his replace­ment to be duly rat­i­fied by voters.

The sub­urbs and exurbs of King Coun­ty are now solid­ly blue. The big leg­isla­tive con­test this year was the State Sen­ate show­down between incum­bent Sen­a­tor Mark Mul­let and chal­lenger Ingrid Ander­son. Both are Democ­rats. As recent­ly as 2016, the east King Coun­ty dis­trict sent two Repub­li­cans to the House.

Belling­ham and What­com Coun­ty used to be a “swing” cor­ner of the state.

Nowa­days, “Bel­ly­wash” is a lib­er­al bas­tion, anchor­ing the all-Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion from the 40th Dis­trict. The next-door 42nd Dis­trict was drawn to bunch togeth­er con­ser­v­a­tive towns in the coun­ty. It sent two Demo­c­ra­t­ic House mem­bers to Olympia in last month’s election.

Rur­al Wash­ing­ton has moved right.

The Repub­li­cans swept leg­isla­tive races in the 19th Dis­trict of South­west Wash­ing­ton. In 1972, anti-war Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date George McGov­ern won in only two of Washington’s thir­ty-nine coun­ties. Come 2016 and 2020, Don­ald Trump car­ried both Grays Har­bor and Pacif­ic Counties.

The North­west has lived up to the “Left Coast” label attached by reac­tionary Wall Street Jour­nal edi­to­r­i­al writ­ers. Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon have backed Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nees in the last nine pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Trump took just 38.77% of Washington’s vote, bare­ly crack­ing forty per­cent in Oregon.

Alas, it’ll be a while before I make it back to Okanogan Coun­ty at elec­tion sea­son. Biden-Har­ris took just 41.82% of the county’s vote last month.

And the rur­al par­tial­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­rat, once a fix­ture of Washington’s polit­i­cal cul­ture, has become as endan­gered as the spot­ted owl.

The Democ­rats did get more votes in Cen­tral and East­ern Wash­ing­ton – Biden-Har­ris nar­row­ly car­ried the city of Wenatchee – but no breakthroughs.

The D’s field­ed an out­stand­ing State Sen­ate can­di­date, Danielle Garbe Reser, in the 16th Dis­trict (Wal­la Wal­la), but she lost by a near­ly three-to-two margin.

In the 6th Dis­trict (Spokane Coun­ty), Repub­li­can State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jen­ny Gra­ham has used her Face­book page to offer links to con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists, and left an obscen­i­ty-laced pone mes­sage with the reporter who exposed it.

She was reelect­ed by a 7,500-vote margin.

Occa­sion­al­ly, there are signs of hope for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic revival. Barack Oba­ma was an A stu­dent who cap­tured a string of B’s in 2008: He received great ear­ly year recep­tions in Bend Ore­gon, Boise, Ida­ho, and Boze­man, Mon­tana. He spent the Fourth of July in Butte, Mon­tana, and is singing its prais­es in his new memoir.

The Biden-Har­ris cam­paign offered a sweep­ing eco­nom­ic recov­ery plan to rur­al Amer­i­ca, but in a year when cam­paign­ing was constricted.

The trend, how­ev­er, appears unbreak­able. Don­ald Trump has dri­ven away once-Repub­li­can sub­urbs and exurbs. Democ­rats can thank him for recap­ture of the State Sen­ate in a 2017 spe­cial elec­tion, and for a King Coun­ty line­up where you have to go to Skykomish to find a Repub­li­can legislator.

The Inland West has tak­en a dif­fer­ent turn.

Sym­bol­ic, last Mon­day, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dan New­house became chair of the Con­gres­sion­al West­ern Cau­cus, which rails against “fed­er­al inter­fer­ence” while speak­ing for the oil and gas indus­try, tim­ber com­pa­nies, cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture, and America’s heav­i­ly sub­si­dized min­ing industry.

It’s as far as you can come from William Jen­nings Bryan, but that’s who rep­re­sents Okanogan Coun­ty in Con­gress these days.

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